Curiosity on its way to Mars!

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Nov. 27 2011 7:05 AM

Curiosity on its way to Mars!

Yesterday morning, NASA successfully launched the Mars Science Laboratory -- named Curiosity -- toward the fourth planet. If, like me, you missed the launch itself (^%$#@&! sinuses) why then, here's some pretty dramatic video of the liftoff:

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

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[Make sure to set it to 720p resolution!]

The cool parts to watch are: about 2 minutes in when the booster rockets fall by the wayside; 3:42 when the payload fairing is jettisoned, exposing the Curiosity spacecraft -- as seen by the camera onboard the rocket, which is way cool; 4:38 when the entire rocket starts to slowly spin up, providing stabilization and allowing the Sun to heat the assembly evenly; then a few seconds later when the upper stage Centaur rocket ignites, leaving the booster behind (also extremely cool).

But wait! There's more!

There's also a video taken a few minutes later, showing the view from the Centaur stage as the Curiosity spacecraft separates, a crucial moment in the mission. The Centaur is what boosted the spacecraft up to speed, putting it on the right trajectory to Mars.


I love that we can get video like this now!

As of right now, the spacecraft is headed toward Mars. Tucked away inside is the rover, but there's also a heat shield to protect it as it enters the Martian atmosphere, and a rocket that will slow its descent even more... but why describe it when there's another video that shows you what will happen:


The beginning of the video may help you make sense of the second video, too, since of course we don't get that great third-person view from cameras on board the rocket. There's a longer version of this video (11 minutes) with no narration, as well.

I've heard some folks wondering why NASA is using such a crazy complicated way to land the rover. The reason has to do with the gravity and atmosphere of Mars, as well as the mass of the rover itself. Landing on Mars is difficult. It has just enough gravity to make it hard to land with just rockets; it would take a lot of fuel, and that means you have to lug that all the way there, which in turn means less mass available for the science package. Mars also has air, which means you can use parachutes, but the air is too thin to make it practical to use them all the way down like we do on Earth. So we're stuck having to use both rockets and parachutes.

And if you think Curiosity's landing is crazy, don't forget that Spirit and Opportunity used giant airbags to literally bounce their way down to the surface! That method wouldn't work with Curiosity, which is too big for airbags.

My congratulations to everyone on the Curiosity team for a successful launch. Now we just have to sit back and wait 8+ months for it to reach Mars... and then the fun really begins.