WASHINGTON, August 3, 2012 – It what many are calling the 7 minute landing of terror, not to be confused with the Tower of Terror at Walt Disney’s Hollywood Studios, NASA’s latest Mars rover will descend toward the surface of the red planet with a mission to find water.
With less than a day until the first landing attempt, all telemetry from the vehicle points to an on time and on course arrival. That’s important when you have a $2.5 billion mission on the line. No one will know if the landing was a success until minutes later, when the first transmissions are received from the surface of the planet.
NASA officials have outlined the landing as a series of steps, each of which can go terribly wrong.
With ten minutes before entering the Martian atmosphere, the capsule carrying the Curiosity rover will separate. The Rover will turn around, placing its heat shield forward as it enters the atmosphere. Top speed: 13,200 mph.
Slowing with a series of maneuvers called “s-curves,” at roughly seven miles from the ground, the rover will deploy its massive parachute. Top speed: 900 mph.
As it closes to five miles from landing, the rover will break away from its heat shield and enable the onboard landing radar. Top speed: 280 mph.
As video capture begins, the parachute will disconnect about one mile from the landing site. Still attached to the equivalent of a jet backpack, the rockets aboard will slow the rover to just 2 mph.
With just twelve seconds remaining, cables release and lower the rover from the jet backpack. Once sensors on the rover detect all wheels on the ground, the hovering jet pack disconnects and crashes a distance away from the newly landed rover.
The six-wheeled nuclear powered roving robot will then begin to send back data indicating successful landing, and shortly thereafter, photos and video.
What makes this rover special:
With a suite of tech gadgets on board, Curiosity can capture pictures, smell, taste and drill (no, there isn’t an app for that).
The laser onboard can drill a hole in rocks up to about 25 feet away and identify the chemical elements inside. This camera style point-and-shoot strategy allows Curiosity to examine a rock for importance, and if not, move on.
Along with the onboard laser, Curiosity has a 7-foot-long robotic arm equipped with a power drill at the end that can bore into rocks and soil. Consider Curiosity a robotic geologist with the ability to transfer ground-up powder onboard and tease out minerals and sniff for organics, considered the chemical building blocks of life.
The rover also carries a 2-megapixel camera, a video camera, and a weather station used to track temperature, pressure and seasonal changes. This data will be the building blocks for future manned missions to the red planet.
With all of that technology on board, there is one thing Curiosity lacks - speed. Unlike a kid’s remote controlled car, Curiosity can only travel at a top speed of one-tenth of a mile per hour.
For NASA, that’s baby steps to the next big thing. Humans on the red planet.
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