The Curiosity Rover has been on course to Mars for over 8 months launched on November 26th of 2011. The vehicle is now only hours away from landing. Over 10 hours ago, it was already closer to Mars than the Moon is to Earth. It will be landing inside what is called the Gale Grater on Mars.
Curiosity is Scheduled to Land today (August 5th) at 10:30pm Pacific Time (adjusted schedule of Time Zones for your area can be found below)
In comparison to previous rovers sent to Mars, Curiosity is nearly twice as long and five times more massive than the spirit and Opportunity Mars exploration rovers. Curiosity carries the most advanced scientific research package ever sent to another world with ten times the mass of scientific instruments as the previous visitors.
Curiosity’s landing system, due to its increased mass, is different than the previous rovers as well. Prior Mars landings, after slowing their decent using the atmosphere as a brake, would deploy a series of airbags to essentially crash and tumble along the surface until coming to a halt. Curiosity is too heavy to use this system. Instead, it will employ what’s called a High-Precision entry, Decent and Landing System or (EDL). Following a 15g aerobraking procedure in the atmosphere, Curiosity will deploy a supersonic parachute. When the chute is deployed, aerobraking will have slowed Curiosity from 5.8 km/s to 480 m/s (about mach 2). The heat shield will separate providing Curiosity’s cameras with a 5fps view of the Martian surface.
Here’s where things get interesting and what really distinguishes the EDL system. The Curiosity rover and a decent platform separate from the aeroshell that protects the unit from the extreme heat of atmospheric entry. The platform, while holding Curiosity, fires 8 thrusters to slow the decent. As the rockets fire, the platform begins to release curiosity from a series of cables. It has been referred to as a “Sky Crane.” the Sky Crane will bring the rover down a 7.6m tether to a soft landing wheels-down on the surface. It is essentially a plug and play landing for the rover. No need for any mechanism to retract for the rover to exit onto the Martian surface. No airbags need to deflate, and the unit doesn’t have to worry about dust being kicked up from the surface due to thrust as the platform is far enough from the surface to prevent disturbing dust on the surface. Once on the surface, pyros will cut the tether and the decent platform will boost itself away from the Rover to prevent the possibility of collision.
After 8 months of travel, the landing phase has been dubbed by engineers as the 7 minutes of terror. The landing process has been described in video by both Wil Wheaton (also a Chasing Atlantis interviewee and who will be present at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) for the landing) or by William Shatner
To watch the landing live tune into NASA JPL Ustream Channel (http://www.ustream.tv/nasajpl)
Here is wishing Curiosity the best!