On Sunday, August 5th, 2012, at about 10.31pm PST (1.31pm EST), the world will experience what NASA scientists are calling 'The Seven Minutes Of Terror' - The successful landing of the 2,000 pound Mars Science Laboratory AKA Curiosity on the surface of the Red Planet.
Launched on November 26th 2011, the one-ton robot that is the star of NASA's $2.5 billion USD, Mars Science Laboratory Mission, is expected to take planetary exploration to the next level. Armed with 10 different science instruments, the rover will settle once and for all, the eternal question that has been haunting humans - If the Red Planet is, or ever had been, capable of supporting microbial life. An added bonus will be the amazing pictures it will snap using the hi-tech cameras on board.
The reason the landing is considered such a challenge is that in order to ensure it makes a safe and precise entry, the behemoth explorer will have to be slowed down from its current nerve-racking speed of 13,000 mph to 1½ mph in a rapid seven minutes - A feat that requires a number of carefully choreographed events to go smoothly. This, is how scientists believe it will all unfold.
As the eight-rocket jet-pack that is carrying Curiosity enters the atmosphere of the Red Planet, the friction caused, will help slow it down considerably - from 13,000 to 1000mph. It will also burnish the capsule's heat shield to a sweltering 3,800° F (2,100°C), which in turn, will deploy and inflate Sky Crane - The largest and strongest parachute to ever be flown to Space. The 60-foot diameter super-chute is built to withstand the 65,000 pounds of force expected to be generated, when the rover is released from its capsule.
Once Sky Crane helps slow Curiosity, which by now should be entirely free of its carrier capsule, to about 200mph, it will free fall for a brief second. Then its retrorockets will fire up - Frequently used in Space, the rocket engines create a thrust against the Space vehicle and help it slow down - In this case, to the desired 1½ mph.
When the parachute gets to about 60 feet above the surface of the red planet, Curiosity, hanging off three nylon ropes will start to lower down to the surface until, it gently lands at its final destination. Once this happens, explosive bolts will ensure that Sky Crane detaches and fly away into oblivion - A job well done!
All this has to be completed within SEVEN minutes!
What's worse is that thanks to the distance from Mars, it will take a full 14-minutes after this occurs for the scientists (and the world) to receive the radio signal confirmation that it all went smoothly!
While it may sound dreadfully complicated, according to Steve Sell, the Deputy Operations Lead for Entry, Descent, and Landing for Curiosity, it is this complexity that makes the landing simple and almost full-proof.
While this is not the first time NASA has successfully landed rovers on Mars, this time around it is a little more challenging thanks to the size and weight of Curiosity. In the case of Vikings I and II and the Mars Phoenix Lander, they were able to simply use the retrorockets to lower them all the way to the surface. if they did the same this time, the rockets could kick up so much dust that it would compromise Curiosity's instruments or in the worst case scenario, excavate craters that the rover would then have to try avoid as it drives away. For the heavier Pathfinder, Spirit and Opportunity they added airbags to soften the impact - But again, Curiosity is way too big for that.
If all goes well, Curiosity will land close to Mount Sharp, a 3.4 mile high mountain that lies in the center of Gale Crater. Situated on the Martian equator, it is believed to be an area where water had existed in the past and therefore, a good place to begin investigating if there are indeed aliens on Mars!
To experience this momentous event, NASA is planning to stream it live at various venues around the world including New York's iconic Times Square. To check for locations in your area go to: www.nasa.gov/mission. Read more fascinating facts about Curiosity at www.space.com.
Update As Of August 6th, 2012
Seven Minutes of Terror Turns Into Hours of Celebration
'I'm safely on the surface of Mars. GALE CRATER I AM IN YOU!!!'
That, was the tweet sent by Curiosity at 10.32 PST (1.32 EST) time that caused an uproar among the scientists at NASA's Pasadena Mission Control in Los Angeles. Not only did it land safely, the amazing rover has already begun to send back pictures from its new home. Below, is the image captured by NASA's HiRise Telescope showing Curiosity making a picture perfect landing.
This 11-minute animation depicts key events of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission, which was launched in late 2011 and is scheduled to land a rover, Curiosity, on Mars in August 2012.