Curious About Mars? Tomorrow’s the Big Day

By David L. Brown

Tomorrow the newest Mars rover, Curiosity, is set to land on the Red Planet. If all goes well, it will set down through an incredible series of engineering steps. In the final stage, the massive rover will be lowered from its berth on the delivery vehicle on cables while the vehicle supports them with rockets. Here’s an image from the Jet Propulsion Lab:

The landing process has several stages, beginning with a heat shield deceleration similar to that used by the Space Shuttle. After that there’s a deployment of a huge supersonic parachute, and finally the rocket-assisted delivery pictured above. with the “skycrane” delivery of the rover to the surface. To see an incredible animated video of the full entry and landing process, see here. If this looks like a Rube Goldberg approach to engineering, well, yeah. But it was required because you see Curiosity is a far larger payload than any previous Mars rovers. How much bigger? Below is a picture showing a model of the Curiosity rover (the big one at right) and the two previous landers. Compared with them, it’s huge. And, it will be able to operate much more aggressively because it’s powered by a nuclear battery instead of weak solar panels. It’s bigger, faster, and has more scientific packages.

But the question now is, will it succeed in making a safe landing? The entry and landing is being called “Seven Minutes of Terror” by the scientists and engineers who developed it. We’ll know tomorrow. Let’s hope it’s good news. If so, it will be perhaps the most incredible engineering feat in history.

If it’s successful, this feat will put America right back at the top in space achievement. If it fails, well, not so much.

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