Oh-so-close Mars: Nail-biting landing happens Monday


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 Mars Rover is slowly let down to the surface on three nylon ropes from the Sky Crane, an 8-rocket jet pack attached to the rover. Credit: NASA

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.”

Mars Curiosity landing sequence from start to stop. Credit: NASA

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.

Gale Crater, named after Australian astronomer Walter Gale, is 96 miles across with a tall mountain at it center. The black oval shows Curiosity’s landing zone. Credit: NASA

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.

This oblique view of the lower mound in Gale crater shows layers of rock that preserve a record of environments on Mars. Orbiting instruments have detected signatures of both clay minerals and sulfate salts. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ESA/UA

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.

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About astrobob

My name is Bob King and I work at the Duluth News Tribune in Duluth, Minn. as a photographer and photo editor. I'm also an amateur astronomer and have been keen on the sky since age 11. My modest credentials include membership in the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) where I'm a regular contributor, International Meteorite Collectors Assn. and Arrowhead Astronomical Society. I also teach community education astronomy classes at our local planetarium.

9 thoughts on “Oh-so-close Mars: Nail-biting landing happens Monday

  1. Thanks for posting the annimation! Wonderful to watch. Will need to show the grandsons as they are into robots, etc. Facinating stuff!

    Husband: If I had the money I would send you there.
    Me: To get rid of me?
    Husband: No, cuz you would so enjoy going and being there. :)

    I guess it’s the thought that counts, right? They would have to give me lithium tho’ to get me in that small capsul! Thanks again!

    • Camille,
      Point well taken, but it’s a useful way to make groundbreaking discoveries on another world. At least the trash is tiny compared to the enormous surface area of Mars.

  2. Hello-

    Great animation, feel like I’m right there with it! Do you know where the “Fly Away” piece to the spacecraft goes? Does it simply leave the planet all together or go get lost in Space? Haha.

    -Rachel

  3. The mystery is how Mount Sharp (Aeolis Mons) was formed since Gale Crater was made by a meteor impact. That impact should have left some meteor debris at the center but not an 18,000 ft high mound. Examining the peak is like examining the remains of the meteor that made the crater and not martian soil. How does examining the meteor reveal the history of the area?

    • Hi Enrique,
      Good question. Larger meteorite impacts like Gale often result in central peaks – they’re the result of material later rebounding after being compressed by the incoming projectile. The peak is made of crustal rock with melted rock from the heat of impact. The impact also excavated the crater hole, exposing layers of crust beneath that would otherwise be hidden. The meteorite/asteroid that collided would have partially vaporized and shattered into fragments which no doubt rained down upon the region around Gale.

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