Saturday, August 4, 2012

Good Luck, Curiosity!

I stared writing this blog entry 4 days, 1 hour and 53 minutes before the scheduled touchdown of the rover Curiosity on Mars.  On Wednesday, the descent vehicle switched over to an on-board computer to control the landing cycle roughly 48 hours from now.  We're dependent on the work of a talented group of makers and 500,000 lines of code.  The landing cycle has been dubbed...

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!
  While writing this entry, I realized that it is totally redundant.  There is a massive Wikipedia entry on the subject.  NPR has been abuzz with news and interviews (the design team manager is a really interesting guy - a classic gifted underachiever that just needed a goal).  Viewing parties are popping up all over the country for late Sunday night.  So why write this?  I suppose it's because I don't always write for an audience.  This is my online journal and I am keenly interested in the space program, robotics and exploration.  It's kind of like my meaningful version of Facebook's Timeline.

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

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.

1 comment:

  1. We are SO geek-psyched here for Monday's landing attempt. Thanks for the great preview/review! That last picture, though, could provide fuel for the the we-never-did-that (i.e., land on Moon or whatever) community - ha ha!


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