This is a sequel to a blog I wrote on July17, 2012 titled ‘NASA’s latest Mars rover to continue work on Red Planet.’
Finally, as planned, on time, on target and as flawless as it can be, the Curiosity rover got deposited on the Martian surface after a parachute slowed it down about 11 kilometers above the surface and then at 20 meters above the ground a brand new landing procedure using a sky crane took over to further slowdown by firing eight retro rockets while lowering the rover to the surface on the end of three cables. When the rover hit the ground, the cables were cut loose, and the sky crane blasted itself away from the landing site.
As described by NASA, the final phase of the Mars Science Laboratory’s journey from Earth to Mars relied on technologies that had never been tried before in outer space — which is why it was called the “seven minutes of terror.”
Seven minutes before landing, Mars Science Laboratory threw off its cruise stage and began its plunge through the planet’s atmosphere at a speed of 13,200 mph (5,900 meters per second). It jettisoned two solid-tungsten weights, shifting the spacecraft’s balance to become more like a wing. Small thrusters fired to put the craft through a series of “S” turns to adjust the trajectory.
The heat shield weathered temperatures ranging up to 3,800 degrees Fahrenheit (2,100 degrees Celsius). At an altitude of about 7 miles (11 kilometers), the spacecraft deployed its parachute, even while it was traveling at supersonic speeds.
According to Adam Steltzner, the lead engineer for the Mars Exploration Rovers mission, NASA went with the seemingly crazy system because the 1-ton Curiosity is the heaviest payload ever delivered to the Martian surface. That weight is too heavy for the airbag-cushioned system that was used for previous Mars rovers, and too unstable to put on a lander with legs.
The nuclear-powered Curiosity is the biggest and most capable robotic laboratory ever sent to another celestial body. Its 10 scientific instruments, among them a robotic arm with a power drill, a laser that can zap distant rocks, a chemistry lab to sniff for the chemical building blocks of life and a detector to measure dangerous radiation on the surface.
It also tracked radiation levels during the journey to help NASA better understand the risks astronauts could face on a future manned trip.
After a while of monitoring its ‘health’, the six-wheeled rover is expected to take its first short drive and start flexing its robotic arm for more studies.