Smithsonian Honors Team Behind Successful Mars Curiosity Landing
March 14, 2013

Smithsonian Honors Team Behind Successful Mars Curiosity Landing

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum announced that the team responsible for the successful landing of NASA´s Mars Curiosity rover will receive its 2013 Trophy for Current Achievement on April 24 in Washington DC.

“The Current Achievement winner can be summarized in two words: sky crane,” said a museum press release describing the award. “This phrase embodied the audacious plan that the Entry, Descent, and Landing team devised to deliver the heaviest man-made object yet sent to Mars: the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover.”

Sky crane is the term NASA used to describe its groundbreaking way of dropping the exploratory rover on Mars. NASA developed the method because of Curiosity´s size and sensitivity.

“As rovers become more capable and carry more instruments, they become larger,” a statement on the NASA website said. “So, in order to accommodate this advanced mission, engineers designed a sky-crane method that will lower the rover to the surface.”

During the sky crane method, a parachute slowed the vehicle as it separated from a protective heat shield. The four descent-stage engines then activated and slowed the rover down further and buffered it against any horizontal winds. As the ship slowed, the rover was released from the descent-stage engines and lowered to the ground via an "umbilical cord.”

When Curiosity´s on-board computer sensed the rover touching down, it cut the cord. The descent stage was programmed to then fly away from the rover and crash-land a safe distance away.

In announcing the award, the Smithsonian noted that the entire operation took place 14 light-minutes away from Earth, forcing the team to rely primarily on automation for the seven-minute landing method.

That dramatic landing occurred seven months ago and the Mars Science Laboratory Project has been operating the rover and investigating the environment in Mars' Gale Crater ever since.

“The science that Curiosity will reveal during the coming years is possible only because the (landing) team ensured that the new landing system worked–perfectly–entirely on its own,” the Smithsonian said in their announcement. “Thanks to this success, the ℠fun´ part of the Curiosity mission is underway.”

The team uses its 10 science instruments to see if the crater has ever offered an environment favorable for life. Curiosity is run by a team within the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), a division of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, which manages the project for NASA.

Starting in 1985, the National Air and Space Museum has given its Lifetime Achievement and Current Achievement awards away each year, with a few exceptions, to recognize aerospace science and technology accomplishments in both the past and present.

Last year´s Current Achievement award went to the Cassini-Huygens Flight Team, which has piloted the Cassini spacecraft and enabled new discoveries surrounding Saturn and its many moons.

"Here we are some 15 years since Cassini launched and it's amazing how well the spacecraft has operated," Charles Elachi, director of JPL, said in reaction to receiving the award. "Thanks to the superb work of both the development team and the operations team, Cassini has been able to show us the beauty and diversity of the Saturn system and, beyond that, to study what is really a miniature solar system in its own right."