Landing on Mars: Seven minutes of terror

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June 26 2012 7:00 AM

Landing on Mars: Seven minutes of terror

This. Is. AWESOME! How the bat-guano crazy engineers at NASA and JPL are going to land the Curiosity rover onto the surface of Mars:

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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Holy crap. NASA, throw lots more money at the production company that made this video! You want to excite the public? They did it right.

Now think about this: the rover weighs -- get this -- 890 kilograms, nearly a ton. The Mars air is thick enough that engineers have to deal with it, but too thin to bring Curiosity all the way to the surface safely. So they need a heat shield to slow it initially, a parachute to brake even more, and then rocket motors to drop it the rest of the way.

Craziness. But no worse, I suppose, than using a bouncy ball made of airbags to protect it, like Spirit and Opportunity used (Curiosity is way too heavy to use that method of landing). It's funny-- landing on Mars is harder than getting stuff back to Earth from space, or landing on the Moon. Our air is thick enough to make it relatively simple to slow something down enough for a comfortable landing, and since the Moon has no air, you just use rockets the whole way.

But you know what? I think they'll do it, and this'll work. Why? Because they've landed probes on Mars before. Many times. We hear a lot of about failed attempts to get to Mars, but in fact JPL and NASA have done an amazing job of getting ever-increasingly sophisticated probes down to the surface of the Red Planet. Heck, Spirit and Opportunity were only supposed to work for a nominal period of 90 days, but Spirit kept going for over six years, and Opportunity is still going strong after more than eight years!

Curiosity is due to land on August 6, 2012, at 05:31 UTC. That's before midnight in Boulder, so I plan on staying up and watching. I missed most of the fun stuff for the SpaceX mission to the space station because it all happened in the middle of the night, so it'll be great to finally watch another space event live. This will be very exciting, and I'll post more info here as I hear it.



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