In just 41 days, on August 5, NASA's Mars Science Laboratory rover will touch down on the Red Planet, and this will be no ordinary landing. In fact, NASA has dubbed the descent "Seven Minutes of Terror."
"When people look at it, it looks crazy," senior EDL engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory Adam Steltzner said in a new video by NASA on the rover landing. "It is the result of reasoned engineering thought, but it still looks crazy."
The recently released video (see below) outlines exactly how crazy the feat of landing the rover actually is. Named Curiosity, the rover must tear through Mars' atmosphere, which takes up to seven minutes. However, transmitting a signal to Earth of its progress takes 14 minutes because of the distance between the planets.
"When we first get word that we've touched the top of atmosphere the vehicle has been alive or dead for at least seven minutes," Steltzner said.
In those seven minutes, NASA engineers have set up a complex sequence of procedures that must be followed in order to avoid disaster. First, they will deploy a parachute to slow the more than 1,000 mph descent. Then cutting off the chute, they'll fire up rockets to slow the vertical velocity even more, and lastly they will lower the rover on a tether into a crater to avoid a harmful dust cloud.
"If any one thing doesn't work just right, it's game over," EDL engineer Tom Rivellini said in the video.
The most complex and scientifically powerful robotic spacecraft ever built to explore the surface of another planet, Curiosity cost NASA $2.5 billion to build. It was launched last November, beginning its voyage to Mars and its mission is to look for organic compounds and signs of past or present habitability.
The rover is the size of a small car and weighs 1,982 pounds. It is equipped with 17 cameras, a 7-foot-long robot arm, and a suite of 10 state-of-the-art scientific sensors and experiments weighing 125 pounds. In contrast, NASA's hugely successful Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, each weighed about 385 pounds, including just 20 pounds of miniaturized science hardware.
Curiosity is set to touch down at 10:31 p.m. PDT on August 5.
Here's the video of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineers sharing the challenges of the Curiosity's landing on the surface of Mars, it's called "Challenges of Getting to Mars: Curiosity's Seven Minutes of Terror:"