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July 20, 2012

Hyping the Mars Rover Landing in 'Seven Minutes of Terror'

By Doug Mohney, Contributing Editor

"Challenges of Getting to Mars: Curiosity's Seven Minutes of Terror" sounds like a high-end theme park ride.  But it's a dramatic YouTube video created by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory has to describe what the $2.8 billion Curiosity Mars rover will have to go through in its last minutes before (hopefully) a successful touchdown on the Red Planet on August 5, 2012.

"When people look at it, it looks crazy," states NASA engineer Adam Steltzner at the beginning of the " Challenges" video. "That's a very natural thing. Sometimes when we look at it, it looks crazy."

Steltzner's intro narrative is accompanied by a very dramatic background them and a series of rapid slides rattling off data points: 6 vehicle configurations, 76 pyrotechnic devices, 500,000 "L1NES OF COD3," and "ZERO MARGIN OF ERROR."

From the top of Mars' atmosphere to the surface is seven minutes; i.e. "Seven minutes of Terror." In contrast, it will take fourteen (14) minutes for signals from the spacecraft to reach earth to indicate success or failure. The Curiosity rover will be alive or dead on the surface of Mars for seven minutes by the time we get back the first signal of Mars that it has entered the atmosphere.

"If any one thing doesn't work just right, it's game over," NASA engineer Tom Rivelleni says.

The package carrying Curiosity will be traveling at 13,000 miles per hour when it hits the atmosphere, heating up to 1600 degrees F from the heat as it decelerates. During its entry, a series of weights and thrusters is used to guide the vehicle towards its targeted landing area.

Mars' atmosphere is 100 times thinner than Earth's "Just enough" that engineers have to deal with but not enough to" finish the job" of slowing down probes sent to the planet.   

In atmosphere, the probe will be slowed to around 1,000 miles an hour where the largest supersonic parachute ever built to date will deploy, delivering a "neck snapping" 9 Gs -- nine times the force of Earth's gravity -- yet weighing only 100 pounds.

Curiosity will slow to around 200 miles per hour with the parachute , where it will drop its heat shield to expose its landing radar so it can figure out where it is. It will then cut away the parachute, drop away, and start its decent on rockets, moving away from the parachute and towards a landing at Gale Crater, burning off vertical and horizontal velocity so it's coming straight down.

But it can't land with rockets alone, because the rockets will kick up too much dust, damaging the rover and its instruments.   At 20 meters (a bit over 60 feet) hover, the Sky Crane mechanism takes over, lowering the rover on a 21 foot long tether down to the surface.

Once the rover's wheels touch down on the surface, the tether has to be cut so the descent stage can fly off to a safe distance and crash, leaving the rover intact.

"Dare Mighty Things" appears at the end, followed by Curiosity touchdown time (10:31PM PDT) and date (August 5, 2012), closing with the logo for NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Boiling away all the hype, the biggest risk for putting Curiosity on Mars is in its combination of rockets and Sky Crane to put the rover on the surface in one piece. Nobody's ever tried a computer-controlled remote hover on another planet in combination with lowering down a payload via tether. On the plus column, the U.S. Marines Corps has been using unmanned helicopters in Afghanistan to deliver cargo during the past seven months. However, if the Sky Crane can't cut away the tether from the Curiosity rover, the results will be catastrophic.

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Edited by Amanda Ciccatelli
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