Sadly, such an important event isn’t getting enough press. This is the biggest Mars rover up to date to land on the red planet – and to be honest – the mission itself is a masterpiece of engineering. The landing itself should start on 6th August, early in the morning – and according to NASA, if everything goes well the touchdown is scheduled for 0731 CET.
The whole landing operation is extremely difficult: there is no reasonable way of supervising it (distance), so everything has to be done automatically. Here on earth we are used to radio communication working instantly – or at least within the 2-4 seconds delay margin max. When you have a rover on Mars it’s not that straightforward. Depending on the position of both planets (Earth vs. Mars) it takes from a bit more than 4 up to 21 minutes (currently it’s around 14 minutes) for electromagnetic waves to reach the other end (electromagnetic waves propagate at the speed of light, approx. 3*10^8 m/s). Landing itself will take around 7 minutes, which are called “7 minutes of terror” – and there is a reason for that. As it was already stated – no real-time control is possible, and the landing “checklist” includes:
- slowing down: Curiosity will enter Martian atmosphere at approx. 21000 km/h (maximum speed of a Boeing 737 is 876 km/h)
- heat protection: special carbon shields will have to withstand temperatures up to ca. 1700 degrees Celsius (iron melts at 1536 degrees Celsius)
- parachute: a special parachute will deploy at 1600 km/h (that’s above the speed of sound)
- sky crane: the parachute will help reduce the speed to ca. 320 km/h, then a special sky crane will deploy that will enable landing at ca. 2 km/h
- finding the landing spot: no airports on Mars!
The rover should land in Gale Crater – a place which gives best opportunities from the analysis point of view. More about the final stage can be found on NASA’s multimedia gallery – the landing is a multi-step process and an image is worth thousand words (don’t miss both movies from NASA, either).
The rover itself is packed with most advanced instruments ever used on a mission of this type – all adding up to 900kg of cargo. You could think of it as an interplanetary geology and geochemistry lab. Mission objectives are clear:
- Was there ever life on Mars?
- Climate studies
- Geology studies
- Planning of human mission to Mars
Aren’t you still convinced? Well, take a look on this photo: http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA15689. That’s the ‘Greeley Panorama’ from Opportunity’s Fifth Martian Winter (False Color). I hope your curiosity levels increased.
- Landing countdown can be tracked on NASA’s web: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/msl/index.html
- A video depicting details of the mission, narrated by William Shatner and Will Wheaton can be found here (title: “Grand Entrance”)
- I also recommend reading Wikipedia’s article about MSL (Mars Science Laboratory)