Mars Science Laboratory “Curiosity” Lands on Mars Sunday Night

It’s been a long, cold, quiet trip for the Mars Science Laboratory named “Curiosity.”  Curiosity is an SUV-sized lab on wheels that was launched over the 2011 Thanksgiving weekend and has been traveling to Mars ever since.  NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab is anxiously biting their nails, has finished making last minute tweaks to trajectory angles, and now waits for Curiosity’s complicated entry into Mars’ atmosphere at 1:17 am EDT on Aug. 6.

If you want to see why they (and the rest of NASA) are nervous, watch this great video JPL produced, called “Seven Minutes of Terror” (the seven minutes it will take for the craft to enter the atmosphere, perform all of the maneuvers necessary to slow the vehicle and land Curiosoty on the surface…all happening with no radio or communication contact with NASA mission control at JPL in California).  If the technology is similar to the quality of the video production, Curiosity is in fine shape! On an ironic note, the “Seven Minutes of Terror” video is just over five minutes long. 🙂


Or, if you need William Shatner to narrate a short video about Curiosity (who doesn’t need Captain Kirk to explain it all?), watch this one:

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So why is the landing so complicated?  Other rovers have landed on Mars successfully, but there has never been a rover as large and complex as Curiosity.  The weight alone of the laboratory on wheels is a complication (1,982 lbs, which is 5 times heavier than any other Mars rover).  Right now Curiosity is approaching Mars at 13,000 mph.  When it hits Mars’ atmosphere, it will start to heat up (the heavier the object, the more heat created)–in this case, over 1600 degrees.  When spacecraft enter Earth’s atmosphere, the atmosphere also heats the craft, but also helps to slow it down because the atmosphere is so thick.  However, Mars’ atmosphere is enough to heat up the craft but not enough to slow it down, so specially designed supersonic parachutes (designed by NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate–yeah!), the largest ever made, will have to take the 65,000 lbs of force from Curiosity, 9 g’s on the parachute’s opening, and slow the vehicle down.

The parachute will slow it to just over 200 mph, but it needs to slow down more (imagine an SUV hitting a wall at 200 mph), so small rocket engines will fire at Mars’ surface, slowing it further.  Those rockets would ultimately be bad for Curiosity, which sits under a dome the rockets are attached to, so Curiosity will be lowered by a tether to the surface, and the dome and rockets will jettison themselves out of the way of Curiosity.

This took a bit of work to engineer!

A nail-biting addition is that it takes 13.8 minutes for the spacecraft’s signal to reach Earth (Mars is currently 154 million miles away), so all communication from Curiosity is delayed.  That means on Sunday night, JPL mission control will receive the signal from Curiosity that it has entered Mars’ atmosphere.  Because of the delay, that also means in real-time, it is already on the surface–safely or otherwise–and has been that way for 7 minutes already.

There are three satellites currently orbiting Mars, and they will be able to provide additional data to NASA about Curiosity.  The satellite Odyssey will be in the best position to view Curiosity’s descent (no accident on that) and should be able to provide some real-time data.  NASA’s second satellite, the Mars Reconaissance Orbiter (MRO) will pass over after the landing and be able to provide more data.  And finally, a European satellite, Mars Express, is also on hand to give any data it can as well.

So finally, the question is what Curiosity will be doing on Mars.  It has already been hard at work, collecting data about radiation in space and sending it back to NASA.  If we want to send astronauts to Mars, dealing with radiation levels to humans is a major concern, so Curiosity has been collecting radiation levels to Mars, will also collect it on those levels in Mars’ atmosphere, and on the surface of Mars.  In addition, high-tech chemistry labs on board will search for evidence of complex organic compounds, which could be signs that something may have lived on Mars when it had more of an atmosphere.  It will also be searching for details about current and past water on Mars, which we’ve already seen evidence of through changing rock and soil formations.  That’s just a tip of what Curiosity will be searching for, but now we just need to get there.

Good luck, Curiosity…we’ll be cheering you on.  If you want to watch it live on the internet, go here:  You won’t see a camera on Curiosity (cameras don’t like 1600 degrees C), but JPL will be leading us through the information, etc and there will be live feeds from JPL.  A large jumbo-tron will be broadcasting it on Times Square, too, and all NASA centers (including NASA Headquarters) will have live events for employees and families…all of the Lanottes will be at HQ Sunday night.  If you’re into listening to a somewhat-cheesy radio station, NASA’s “Third Rock Radio” will also broadcast the event:  Facebook and Twitter feeds will be all over the place, if you’re into that.  And for everyone else who just likes a good night of sleep, it should be all over the news on Monday.

And finally, if you like Hot Wheels, a Mars Rover will be available sometime in September–I really want one!


~ by alanotte on August 3, 2012.

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