NASA braces for '7 minutes of terror' Mars plunge

August 5, 2012 by ALICIA CHANG
This Aug. 2, 2012 file photo shows Nick Lam, data controller, monitoring the Mars rover Curiosity from the Deep Space Network's control room at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. NASA's Curiosity rover is zooming toward Mars. With about a day to go until a landing attempt, the space agency says the nuclear-powered rover appears on course. Tension will be high late Sunday, Aug. 5, 2012, when it plummets during the "seven minutes of terror." Skimming the top of the Martian atmosphere at 13,000 mph, the rover needs to brake to a stop _ in seven minutes _ and set its six wheels down on the surface. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)

NASA's most high-tech Mars rover on Sunday zeroed in on the red planet where it will attempt a tricky celestial gymnastics routine during a "seven minutes of terror" plummet through the atmosphere.

The Curiosity rover was poised to hit the top of the at 13,000 mph (21,000 kph). If all goes according to script, it will be slowly lowered by cables inside a massive crater in the final few seconds.

NASA was ready for the "Super Bowl of ," said Doug McCuistion, head of the at NASA headquarters.

"We score and win or we don't score and we don't win," said McCuistion.

If all goes well, mission control at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory should hear a signal at 10:31 p.m. Pacific (0331 GMT). The space agency warned that confirmation could take longer if an orbiting spacecraft that's supposed to listen for Curiosity during the descent is not in the right place.

Curiosity's trajectory was so accurate that engineers decided to wave off a last chance to tweak its position before atmosphere entry.

"We're ready to head in," said mission manager Brian Portock.

Not ones to tempt fate, planned to break out the "good luck" peanuts before Curiosity takes the plunge as part of a long-running tradition.

One scientist who can relate to the building anxiety is Cornell University Steve Squyres, who headed NASA's last successful rover mission in 2004.

This time around, Squyres has a supporting role and planned to view the landing with other researchers in the "science bullpen."

"Landing on is always a nerve-racking thing. You're never going to get relaxed about something like landing a spacecraft on Mars," said Squyres.

Sunday's touchdown attempt was especially intense because NASA is testing a brand new landing technique. Due to the communication delay between Mars and Earth, Curiosity will be on autopilot. There's also extra pressure because budget woes have forced NASA to rejigger its Mars exploration roadmap.

"There's nothing in the pipeline" beyond the planned launch of a Mars orbiter in 2013, said former NASA Mars czar Scott Hubbard, who teaches at Stanford University.

Curiosity was launched to study whether the Martian environment ever had conditions suitable for microbial life.

The voyage to Mars took over eight months and spanned 352 million miles (566 million kilometers). The trickiest part of the journey? The landing. Because Curiosity weighs nearly a ton, engineers drummed up a new and more controlled way to set the rover down.

The last , twins Spirit and Opportunity, were cocooned in air bags and bounced to a stop in 2004.

The plans for Curiosity called for a series of braking tricks, similar to those used by the space shuttle, and a supersonic parachute to slow it down. Next: Ditch the heat shield used for the fiery descent.

And in a new twist, engineers came up with a way to lower the rover by cable from a hovering rocket-powered backpack. At touchdown, the cords cut and the rocket stage crashes a distance away.

The nuclear-powered Curiosity, the size of a small car, is packed with scientific tools, cameras and a weather station. It sports a robotic arm with a power drill, a laser that can zap distant rocks, a chemistry lab to sniff for the chemical building blocks of life and a detector to measure dangerous radiation on the surface.

It also tracked radiation levels during the journey to help NASA better understand the risks astronauts could face on a future manned trip.

After several weeks of health checkups, the six-wheeled rover could take its first short drive and flex its robotic arm.

The landing site near Mars' equator was picked because there are signs of water everywhere, meeting one of the requirements for life as we know it. Inside Gale Crater is a 3-mile (5-kilometer)-high mountain, and images from space show the base appears rich in minerals that formed in the presence of water.

Previous trips to Mars have uncovered ice near the Martian north pole and evidence that water once flowed when the planet was wetter and toastier unlike today's harsh, frigid desert environment.

Curiosity's goal: To scour for basic ingredients essential for life, including carbon, nitrogen, phosphorous, sulfur and oxygen. It's not equipped to search for living or fossil microorganisms. To get a definitive answer, a future mission needs to fly Martian rocks and soil back to Earth to be examined by powerful laboratories.

The mission comes as NASA retools its Mars exploration strategy. Faced with tough economic times, the space agency pulled out of partnership with the European Space Agency to land a rock-collecting rover in 2018. The Europeans have since teamed with the Russians as NASA decides on a new roadmap.

Despite Mars' reputation as a spacecraft graveyard, humans continue their love affair with the planet, lobbing spacecraft in search of clues about its early history. Out of more than three dozen attempts — flybys, orbiters and landings — by the U.S., Soviet Union, Europe and Japan since the 1960s, more than half have ended disastrously.

One NASA rover that defied expectations is Opportunity, which is still busy wheeling around the rim of a crater in the Martian southern hemisphere eight years later.

Explore further: NASA spacecraft barreling toward a Mars landing (Update)

More information: Mars mission:


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1 / 5 (13) Aug 05, 2012
Anybody wanna make a bet? I wager $1.00 it crashes! I can handle payments by paypal or mail. You know i have to Capitalize on the event. :D
not rated yet Aug 05, 2012
...10:31 p.m. Pacific (0331 GMT)

Nope. It'll be around 0531 GMT/UTC, but the Pacific Time of 10:31 is correct.
2.6 / 5 (5) Aug 05, 2012
This expedition demonstrates a major advantage of robotic space exploration -- no human lives are endangered by this landing. This mission looks risky enough that it wouldn't have been tried if humans were on board.
3.9 / 5 (7) Aug 05, 2012
Another fine anti-american sentiment expressed by a Capitalist.

Capitalism needs America to fail so that it can further enslave the American People.

"Anybody wanna make a bet? I wager $1.00 it crashes!" - CapitalismFailed
1.3 / 5 (4) Aug 05, 2012
I find it strange that NASA didn't test the skycrane method here on Earth. Just skip the supersonic parachute opening sequence (or not), do a faux heatshield separation,parachute-back shell release, power up the descent stage to lower a mockup lander (with weight and other parameter scaled for Earth's gravity and air density,etc) to see if all would work. I think NASA is so sure of their design and simulations, as if to paraphrasing the Norlaminian scientist in Sky Lark:"only mechanisms built by bunglers need testing." Oh well, only hours are left now, to see their faith is justified or not.
5 / 5 (2) Aug 05, 2012
hovering a craft using rockets is not that tricky in an ideal environment, the uncertainties of atmospheric disturbance and equipment malfunction are the real risks. These cannot be emulated with a physical test and can be simulated quite accurately, so money that could have been spent on a physical test could be used for simulating thousands of different scenarios.
With a simulation when it fails you can replay it and find out why, but not necessarily with a physical test.
Also earths atmostpheric density and turbulence are different as is it's gravity so any physical test here would not be as representative as a single simulation.
It's much better to spend the available money on simulation than a physical test in my view.
1.4 / 5 (9) Aug 05, 2012
VD, why do i need America to fail? I'm just betting the government will fail. I highly doubt private enterprise would have planned a mission like this. They would have found a way to make it simpler(therefor reliable) with air bags.
2 / 5 (4) Aug 05, 2012
I am staying up late for this. Good luck NASA. No matter what the sceptics may say you are worth every penny.
1 / 5 (1) Aug 05, 2012
As any good Capitalist knows, it's always cheapest to buy something out of bankruptcy than to have to pay a fair market price.
e.g. buying state/local banks during the 30s depression.

Morals, schmorals, it's all about maximizing profit.
1 / 5 (4) Aug 06, 2012
24 minutes to go !

Hope they remembered to remove the safety pegs.

I must say i've seen some crazy ideas in my time, but this.... lol... It sure is going to be interesting. So Sit back and hold on... here we go..
1 / 5 (2) Aug 06, 2012
So this was the first time they've used a sky crane to land on any heavenly body correct?

Well it worked... We're getting awfully good at this stuff.
3.7 / 5 (3) Aug 06, 2012
Congratulations to NASA and the Government Scientists and Engineers involved in the mission for a successful landing on Mars.

I find it sad that so many Libertarian/Randite Americans like CapitalismFails were wishing for the failure of the mission so that they could use it as an example of the Failure of Government and Government science.

Once again, Congratulations to NASA - the only part of America that is worthy of preserving.

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