Curiosity Closing In On Mars For Seven Minutes Of Terror
July 31, 2012

Curiosity Mars Landing – Get Ready For Seven Minutes Of Terror

[ Watch the Video "Seven Minutes of Terror" ]

Lee Rannals for - Your Universe Online

A new monumental moment is approaching as the newest Martian rover closes in on its journey towards the Red Planet.

Curiosity has been trekking through space since last November, and will be completing its 352-million-mile journey on August 5, 10:31 Pacific time.

This Sunday, redOrbit will be bringing you live coverage of the event, nicknamed "seven minutes of terror," from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Bringing the Mars Science Laboratory safely into the Martian atmosphere, and landing Curiosity onto its surface is not a simple task. NASA has acknowledged the difficulty its engineers will be facing this Sunday, by making one of the most complicated landings in the space agency's history from over 300 million miles away.

MSL launched aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on November 26 at 10:02 a.m. eastern time from Cape Canaveral last year.  Since then, it has been making its way through space at nearly 13,000 mph.

During NASA's "seven minutes of terror" in trying to land the rover safely on Mars, engineers must bring the 13,000 mph spacecraft down to 1.7 mph before reaching the surface to ensure Curiosity lands in one piece.

The car-sized rover will be landing beside a Martian mountain in Gale Crater to begin a two year mission of scientific work, helping to uncover whether the area has ever had a suitable environment to support life.

In order to reach its landing spot, Curiosity will be flying like a wing in the upper atmosphere of Mars, instead of dropping down lie a rock and utilizing the airbag method.

At about seven miles above the surface of the planet, and at a velocity of 900 mph, MSL will deploy a parachute to slow down the descent even more.

The spacecraft will be riding down towards the surface for about another six miles before reaching 180 mph. At this stage, curiosity will be released, and the "sky crane" method will be initiated.

Mission engineers designed a "sky crane" method for the final several seconds of the flight. During this journey towards the surface, a backpack with retrorockets controlling the descent speed will lower the rover on three nylon cords just before touchdown. NASA said 76 pyrotechnic devices must fire on time during the descent to get Curiosity to the surface.

"Those seven minutes are the most challenging part of this entire mission," Pete Theisinger, the mission's project manager at JPL, said on NASA's website. "For the landing to succeed, hundreds of events will need to go right, many with split-second timing and all controlled autonomously by the spacecraft. We've done all we can think of to succeed. We expect to get Curiosity safely onto the ground, but there is no guarantee. The risks are real."

Throughout the rover's journey from Earth to Mars, engineers have been altering the flightpath to try and ensure a precision landing spot.  Engineers have been shooting off thrusters and adjusting its flight path since January.

Other than making adjustments, engineers at NASA also ran rover-mobility tests on California sand dunes in May in preparation for operating Curiosity after it lands in Gale Crater.

MSL didn't wait to get to Mars before starting up its science tests. As it has flown through space, Curiosity has been monitoring space radiation during its 8-month journey.

Not only is this new rover offering scientists the opportunity to study Mars like never before, but it is giving NASA the chance to see what it could be like landing a manned-mission on Mars one day.

Tune in to the redOrbit Blog this Sunday night to get your space fix and find out how the most complicated spacecraft landing in NASA's history pans out.