Animation showing how Mars Curiosity will land on Mars and collect and analyze a soil sample. The craft first orbits Earth atop a rocket stage before being sent to Mars.
After an 8 1/2 month journey, the Mars Curiosity Rover will perform a daring landing via sky crane, settling onto the rusty Martian dust at 12:31 a.m. (CDT) Monday morning August 6.
The animation illustrates the many-stepped landing procedure dubbed “7 Minutes of Terror”. Terror’s a good description: the onboard computer will execute the entire landing, commanding the 2,000-lb. craft to slow from an initial entry speed of 13,000 mph down to 1 1/2 mph for a safe touchdown.
“The whole ballgame transpires within 7 minutes, from atmospheric entry to touch-down,” says Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Steve Sell, Deputy Operations Lead for Entry, Descent, and Landing. “The onboard computer calls the shots. And if any one maneuver fails, it’s game over.”
The video’s positively thrilling to watch. The version I’ve posted is 11 minutes long and includes an excellent new sequence showing how the rover will explore its new environs and sample Martian rocks. Turn up the volume and view it full-screen for maximum enjoyment. For the landing sequence only, click HERE for the short version. I also highly recommend NASA writer Dauna Coulter’s recent article for an exciting, step-by-step description of the landing.
On its way down, the lander will point a camera at the surface to create a video of the descent and touchdown. Curiosity will transmit the first images from Mars anywhere from minutes up to 12 hours after landing. According to Emily Lakdawalla, blogger for the Planetary Society’s website, if we’re very lucky, we’ll see a thumbnail photo just minutes after touchdown when Curiosity first communicates with the Odyssey orbiter. Because of the late hour, most of us in the U.S. will probably get our first look over Monday morning coffee.
The rover will land in an ancient 96-mile diameter crater called Gale with a mountain in its center that rises higher than Mt. Ranier rises above Seattle. Layering in the mound at the mountain’s base suggests a long history of minerals deposited by water flows. We know this because orbiting spacecraft have found clays and water-saturated sulfate salts in the rocks.
Curiosity will drive to and analyze the layers using a suite of scientific instruments to search for organic (carbon-containing) molecules since these areas may once have harbored life in Mars’ warmer, wetter past. Any microbes alive then may have left traces of organic materials in the rocks. During its prime mission, which lasts one Mars year or the equivalent of about two Earth years, Curiosity will hopefully tell us whether the landing region ever had conditions favorable to life.
Ever been praised by a teacher or boss for asking a good question? Good questions are worth following up and often lead us on the path to adventure. One of humanity’s biggest questions since learning that Mars had clouds and ice caps like Earth’s was whether the planet might also have been an abode for life. Curiosity – in both senses of the term – may finally give us an answer.