Sunday, August 5, 2012

Curiosity Rover Must Stick the Landing

NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover was launched in November of last year.  After traveling 352 million miles, the rover will touch down on the red planet in just a few hours (1:30amET).  Curiosity is bigger than any previous rover but also more equipped giving us our best shot yet at verifying if life on Mars, was, or is ever possible.  But first, Curiosity has to stick the landing on Mars' surface.  Allow me to break everything down on all things Curiosity.

Lets call it a 2.5 billion dollar gamble; the mini cooper sized rover is going to have NASA engineers seriously sweating on this landing.  

From the top of Mars atmosphere, down to the surface, it takes 7 minutes.  

Curiosity has to go from 13,000mph to 0mph during this time, which is being dubbed as “7 minutes of terror".  There is no room for error on this landing.

Since Curiosity is much bigger than previous rovers, it cannot use an airbag landing. The process requires four steps.  

The rover will be inside a capsule for the journey.  Upon landing, it will deploy a
100lb parachute – “the strongest most supersonic parachute NASA has ever developed”.  (It has to withstand 65,000 lbs. of force)  But that parachute is only going to slow it to 200mph.  When it gets close enough, it will cut that parachute off and slow itself down with rocket- powered deceleration.  It then will be lowered down on it’s wheels by a Skycrane, and this will all happen with the utmost precision.

Image courtesy of NASA - the three Mars rovers - Curiosity to right (much larger in size)
This particular mission is the most ambitious and also has the most riding on it.  If the mission fails, there will be a lot of skepticism on the spend and also future space missions. And if the mission is a success, it could lead to very interesting discoveries in science.

Experts are predicting a 60-70% chance of failure.

What is the point of the mission anyway?
The main point of the mission is to determine if the planet ever had life or could support it.  (There are three criteria needed to prove it was once habitable: water, necessary compounds and a source of energy.)

Curiosity will be landing next to Mt. Sharp that has numerous layers the rover can explore unveiling potential secrets about ancient Mars and the possibility of a once habitable environment.  (Note - this rover is also a lot more rugged and was built to climb craters and mountain areas.)  

And while it is much bigger than previous rovers, it is better equipped which finally allows NASA to confidently get answers.  There are ten different instruments on board that will take on various missions:  a camera that will take high res video and pictures, testing for radiation, and there’s even an on- board laser that will test the soil and rocks (all data will be sent to two orbiters to relay the results back to NASA).

The mission itself is scheduled for two years, though NASA says the battery could last up to ten.

Image courtesy of NASA - Curiosity is compared to the size of a Mini Cooper
This sounds freakin’ awesome, where can I watch/stay up to date?
There are quite a few viewing parties across the country.  If you happen to be in New York City, you can watch it live from Times Square, right where the ball drops.  If you are elsewhere, fear not, here are a few links:
                                       - map of viewing locations
NASA TV Public Channel - feed including commentary and interviews - uninterrupted, clean feed
XBox - NASA link on your dashboard
NASA Be a Martian App - while this won't be streaming live it will have regular updates

 And PS - I highly recommend you watch this clip from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

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Copyright © 2012 Katie Linendoll