Weather update: it continues to look good for a launch tomorrow morning. The chance of rain is now down to 10%.
This is the final post in the “Countdown” series. Tomorrow Curiosity will begin its long journey to Mars. While the launch is a nerve wracking time for anyone involved, perhaps the most scary part of the mission is the landing. Curiosity will attempt to land on Mars using a method that’s never been used before: lowering down to the surface using a crane from a platform that is hovering under rocket power. If that sounds like it’s difficult to do – it is! NASA has a really neat movie of how it is all supposed to work.
Let’s quickly talk about the landing site first. Many of you will recall that during the Apollo missions the lunar module was piloted down to the surface. Neil Armstrong was actually seconds away from running out of fuel while he looked for a good place to put down Apollo 11, imagine what a disaster that could have been… Without the benefit of a human pilot, Curiosity needs to land in a region that’s relatively free of hazards. Fortunately, a series of surveyor satellites has given us incredible knowledge of the surface of Mars and the chosen site of Gale Crater has both good landing areas as well as a lot of interesting geography (including an alluvial fan likely deposited by water carrying sediments).
But let’s get back to the interesting bit, the landing procedure itself. Imagine hurtling toward a planet at tens of thousands of kilometers an hour. Your millions of miles away from the Earth and there’s no human pilot to plot a course once you’re inside the atmosphere to avoid any unexpected events. Sounds pretty risky, yeah? And it is… Beagle 2 was the last surface mission to fail (and we think we found the wreckage), but just four years earlier two missions, Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander, both failed as well. If you want statistics, NASA has landed on Mars successfully five (yes only five) times! And when it comes to Curiosity, the landing procedure that’s been chosen is more complex than any other mission before it…
While the Apollo missions entered into orbit around the Moon, Curiosity is going to slow down from interplanetary speeds without this step. In this sense its landing will be somewhat similar to the Apollo “splashdowns” on Earth. Thus Curiosity is going to hit the Martian atmosphere travelling at over 20,000 km per hour, and again, just like the Apollo missions, the spacecraft carrying Curiosity has a heat shield underneath to protect the rover from the extreme heat (a peak of 2100 C) produced in re-entry. All the steps that follow are given on this great graphic provided by NASA:
Once into the atmosphere Curiosity will begin a series of maneuvers at several times the speed of sound, before deploying its parachute while still at supersonic speeds. This part of the descent is anticipated to go pretty well. Supersonic breaking parachutes have been used since the Mercury missions in late 1950s early 1960s so the technology is nothing new.
But once Curiosity has descended to about 1.8 km above the surface, and is travelling at aroud 400 km per hour, it will separate from the parachute and begin a powered descent. In about 40 seconds it will be down to just 20m above the Mars surface, and then perhaps the most risky part of the whole mission begins: lowering to the surface on the end of a “sky crane”. Curiosity can’t just be “dropped” – it’s too heavy at almost 1 ton in mass. Once the sky crane is fully deployed the spacecraft will slowly descend down at about 0.75m per second. Once it detects that Curiosity is on the ground it will cut the lines on the crane and fly away at least 150 m away from the rover.
Amazingly, all this is going to be filmed. The MARDI descent camera will take 4 images per second during the maneuvers. If it all works, this is going to be one heck of a movie!
So, one day to go for the launch… Can’t wait for Curiosity to begin its journey!!!