The Newest Martian Invader
At ~1:30 am EST on August 6th, Mars will have a new invader. The Mars Science Laboratory, or Curiosity, will begin its mission of analyzing Martian soil and rocks. According to the mission website, “the rover’s onboard laboratory will study rocks, soils, and the local geologic setting in order to detect chemical building blocks of life (e.g., forms of carbon) on Mars and will assess what the martian environment was like in the past.” Curiosity will be an adventurer compared to its previous rover associates. During its mission, which will last 687 days (or one Martian year), Curiosity will move 3 to 12 miles from its landing site. So if, during its mission, Curiosity travels 3 miles from its landing site it will be traveling at an average speed of .00018 miles per hour. If it travels 12 miles from its landing site, the average speed will be .00073 miles per hour. While blazing across the Martian surface, Curiosity will do 70 soil/rock samples. On board, Curiosity has 3 cameras, 4 spectrometers, 2 radiation detectors, and environmental and atmospheric sensors. Mars Science Laboratory indeed!
The landing process is understandably stressful (lots of time, planning, and money go into these missions) and the landing of Curiosity is being referred to as “Seven Minutes of Terror”. Missions to Mars have a bad habit of failing. Out of the 49 missions sent to Mars, 26 failed to launch, failed en route, or failed to land. The Curiosity landing is additionally stressful because it will be testing out new equipment. Here is an image of the landing process:
The small insert in lower left hand corner shows the end portion of the landing, which uses the sky crane! Previously, airbags were used to land the rovers safely on Mars, but Curiosity is too large. Once the parachute is detached, the sky crane will use rockets to decrease velocity (from 13,000 mph at entry to 1.7 mph at landing) and then will lower Curiosity to the surface, placing it on its wheels. Once Curiosity senses touchdown, the cables connecting it to the sky crane will be severed, the crane will fly away, and Curiosity will begin roving.
Curiosity is going to be doing some great science. The information gained by this mission, both scientific (understanding Mars’ past) and engineering (sky cranes!), will lead to even better rover mission in the future and will hopefully lay the ground work for manned missions to Mars! And if Curiosity does a really good job, it might be immortalized by xkcd like Spirit was:
For updates and more information, follow Curiosity on twitter!
Curiosity images credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Spirit comic credit: xkcd