Anxiety over rover's Hollywood-style Mars landing

Aug 03, 2012 by ALICIA CHANG
In this Thursday, Aug. 2, 2012 file photo, Adam Steltzner, Mars Science Laboratory's entry, descent and landing phase leader at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, uses a scale model to explain the Curiosity rover's path to the surface during a news conference at the laboratory, in Pasadena, Calif. The rover is headed for a two-year mission to study whether Mars ever had the elements needed for microbial life. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)

Seven minutes of terror. It sounds like a Hollywood thriller, but the phrase describes the anxiety NASA is expecting as its car-sized robotic rover tries a tricky landing on Mars late Sunday.

Skimming the top of the at 13,000 mph (21,000 kph), the rover needs to brake to a stop — in seven minutes.

The rover is headed for a two-year mission to study whether Mars ever had the elements needed for microbial life. Because of its heft, the 2,000-pound (900-kilogram) robot can't land the way previous spacecraft did. They relied on air bags to cushion a bouncy touchdown. This time NASA is testing a brand new that involves gingerly setting down the rover similar to the way heavy-lift helicopters lower huge loads at the end of a cable. How hard is it? "The degree of difficulty is above a 10," says Adam Steltzner, an engineer at 's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which manages the mission.

And American University space policy analyst Howard McCurdy says: "It would be a major technological step forward if it works. It's a big gamble."

A communication time delay between Mars and Earth means Curiosity will have to nail the landing by itself, following the half million lines of computer code that engineers uploaded to direct its every move.

After an 8 1/2-month, 352-million-mile (566-million kilometer) journey, here's a step-by-step look at how Curiosity will land:

—Ten minutes before entering the Martian atmosphere, Curiosity separates from the capsule that carried it to Mars.

—Turning its protective heat shield forward, it streaks through the atmosphere at 13,200 mph (21,240 kph), slowing itself with a series of S-curves.

—Seven miles from the ground at 900 mph (482 million Celsius), Curiosity unfurls its enormous parachute.

— Next it sheds its heat shield and turns on radar to scope out the landing site. Now it's 5 miles (8 kilometers) from touchdown and closing in at 280 mph (450 kph).

—A video camera aboard Curiosity starts to record the descent.

—A mile from landing, the parachute is jettisoned.

—Curiosity is still attached to a rocket-powered backpack, and those rockets are used to slow it to less than 2 mph (3.2 kph).

—Twelve seconds before landing, nylon cables release and lower Curiosity. Once it senses six wheels on the ground, it cuts the cords. The hovering rocket-powered backpack flies out of the way and crashes some distance away.

Explore further: Astronauts to reveal sobering data on asteroid impacts

5 /5 (2 votes)
add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

NASA's newest Mars rover faces a tricky landing

Jul 30, 2012

It's the U.S. space agency's most ambitious and expensive Mars mission yet — and it begins with the red planet arrival Sunday of the smartest interplanetary rover ever built.

Recommended for you

Astronauts to reveal sobering data on asteroid impacts

1 hour ago

This Earth Day, Tuesday, April 22, three former NASA astronauts will present new evidence that our planet has experienced many more large-scale asteroid impacts over the past decade than previously thought… ...

Rosetta instrument commissioning continues

1 hour ago

We're now in week four of six dedicated to commissioning Rosetta's science instruments after the long hibernation period, with the majority now having completed at least a first initial switch on.

Astronaut salary

2 hours ago

Talk about a high-flying career! Being a government astronaut means you have the chance to go into space and take part in some neat projects—such as going on spacewalks, moving robotic arms and doing science ...

Red moon at night; stargazer's delight

21 hours ago

Monday night's lunar eclipse proved just as delightful as expected to those able to view it. On the East Coast, cloudy skies may have gotten in the way, but at the National Science Foundation's National Optical ...

Meteorites yield clues to Martian early atmosphere

23 hours ago

(Phys.org) —Geologists who analyzed 40 meteorites that fell to Earth from Mars unlocked secrets of the Martian atmosphere hidden in the chemical signatures of these ancient rocks. Their study, published ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

A sharp eye on Southern binary stars

Unlike our sun, with its retinue of orbiting planets, many stars in the sky orbit around a second star. These binary stars, with orbital periods ranging from days to centuries, have long been the primary ...

Hubble image: A cross-section of the universe

An image of a galaxy cluster taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope gives a remarkable cross-section of the Universe, showing objects at different distances and stages in cosmic history. They range ...

Astronaut salary

Talk about a high-flying career! Being a government astronaut means you have the chance to go into space and take part in some neat projects—such as going on spacewalks, moving robotic arms and doing science ...

Cosmologists weigh cosmic filaments and voids

(Phys.org) —Cosmologists have established that much of the stuff of the universe is made of dark matter, a mysterious, invisible substance that can't be directly detected but which exerts a gravitational ...

Tiny power plants hold promise for nuclear energy

Small underground nuclear power plants that could be cheaper to build than their behemoth counterparts may herald the future for an energy industry under intense scrutiny since the Fukushima disaster, the ...

Hand out money with my mobile? I think I'm ready

A service is soon to launch in the UK that will enable us to transfer money to other people using just their name and mobile number. Paym is being hailed as a revolution in banking because you can pay peopl ...