The Seven Minutes of Terror!
In a nutshell, the lander has to deliver the rover on target while scrubbing a lot of velocity in a relatively thin atmosphere. And it can't kick up too much dust that will gum up the works of this precision machine. Up until recently, the track record for landing on Mars was spotty at best. My spousal unit and I used to joke about Martians shooting down our spacecraft in orbit.
|Flying to Mars ain't like dusting crops! Check out this skycrane action. So cool!|
So here I am asking some questions that I won't know the answer to until Monday morning:
Will Curiosity, also known as the Mars Science Laboratory, get a chance to work years past its scheduled mission end like Opportunity and Spirit?
Will it burn up in the atmosphere?
Will the supersonic parachute deploy?
Will the sky crane concept work? What if the skycrane lands on Curiosity or if the cable doesn't release?
What if we just lose contact altogether?
I suppose I should trust the designers. The NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineered a fairly complicated system to get this machine down and operational in one piece. Gravity is a harsh mistress, even on Mars. Previous generations of rovers were much smaller and could be dropped inside inflated cocoons. That's not so practical for a machine roughly the size of a small SUV! The landing vehicle is part heat shield and part sky crane. It is an audacious bit of engineering. Because of the transmission time delay, Curiosity will be on the surface of Mars for fourteen minutes before its signal can reach Earth.
We space nerds can only cross our fingers and hope for the best. In the meantime, here is a diagram of the landing cycle thanks to Wikipedia.
Behold the seven minutes of terror and more official videos at http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/multimedia/videos/index.cfm?v=49
Remember, Curiosity is a mobile science laboratory. It is not dependent on solar power given its nuclear power pack. And it is fully equipped to find traces of life or building blocks of life on the surface of mars. Here's a bit about the science mission:
The good news is that the Opportunity rover hasn't been forgotten. This plucky little bot is completing day 3,111 of its planned 91 day mission and is still producing good science. Great job, NASA! Oh, our family hasn't forgotten Spirit, either. Someday, all of these machines will be stops on an interplanetary sightseeing tour.
Good luck, Curiosity!
|A family portrait: Sojourner, Opportunity/Spirit, Curiosity greet friendly Martians.|