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: How bad can solar storms get?

0 shares

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

How bad can solar storms get?

May 22, 2015

Our sun regularly pelts the Earth with all kinds of radiation and charged particles. How bad can these solar storms get?

Mars rover's ChemCam instrument gets sharper vision

May 22, 2015

NASA's Mars Curiosity Rover's "ChemCam" instrument just got a major capability fix, as Los Alamos National Laboratory scientists uploaded a software repair for the auto-focus system on the instrument.

GOES-R satellite begins environmental testing

May 21, 2015

The GOES-R satellite, slated to launch in 2016, is ready for environmental testing. Environmental testing simulates the harsh conditions of launch and the space environment once the satellite is in orbit. ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.