NASA’s new Mars rover Curiosity is scheduled to land on Mars tonight. The best part is that it will be broadcasted live on NASA TV, starting 23:00 (11pm) Eastern time.
Of course, every landing on Mars is exciting, but this one in particular will be spectacular.The previous two rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, which spend over 5 years exploring the Mars’ surface, used a “conventional” landing – after they entered the atmosphere, parachutes were deployed to slow the decent down and the impact of the touch down was handled by a high tech bouncing ball which wrapped the rovers. After the ball stopped bouncing, it opened up and the rover rolled out.
Curiosity however is the size of a car and too heavy to do that, so NASA devised a completely new procedures – which they could not even test completely on Earth. The re-entry will be pretty much the same, but once the heat shield is discarded and parachutes deployed, the landing craft is supposed to fire it’s rocket engines, hover above the ground, open it’s cargo bay door and lower the rover down on a rope. After the rover is deployed, the hover will fly away and crash away from the rover.
Here is what NASA thinks the whole thing will look like:
Sounds complicated. The rover costs around $2.5 billion, and it’s mission is to search for live on Mars, thus making the stakes high. The political situation for NASA is also complicated. Few months back the planetary sciences budged was cut, a successful mission, one that could potentially find life on Mars, will surely help NASA regain credibility, and certainly money.
One wonders, if given all that, it was wise to design a brand new landing procedure. After all, the primary purpose is to do science, not to do clever engineering.
Still, I’m an optimist. NASA track record on Mars has been stellar. I’ll be watching. Good luck Curiosity.