Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Geek'd: the curiosity mars landing

So this past Monday at 1AM EST, science nerds and wannabe astronauts and astronomers everywhere were left on the edge of their seats.

Curiosity, the single largest rover NASA has ever built was about to land on Mars.

Not I however. As much as I generally like space - I grew up with my best attempt at a replica star chart on my ceiling - work, work and... work has basically left me tired, drained and sleep-deprived. So I was asleep by 11PM that evening.

Still what they managed to do to land the rover is pretty impressive, and apparently was very bold.

Curiousity is an unmanned craft that is about the size of an SUV. It cost NASA a whopping $2.5 billion dollars to build and launch and its purpose is to collect evidence on whether life could have been supported on the red planet in its distant past. And the plutonium-powered vehicle is equipped with everything from a robotic arm and cameras to a laser and an on-board laboratory to heat and analyze rock samples in order to determine this long held belief.

It took it 8 months to traverse space to reach Mars. But it was the 7 minutes in which it needed to land that was of the most concern for NASA.

Previous successful Mars landings by unmanned crafts involved an inflatable balloon at the bottom of said crafts not only helped slow the speed of the craft entering Mars' atmosphere (which apparently upon entry can be as high as 13,200 mph) but also allowed it to bounce upon contact of the surface, therefore creating a soft landing.

For Curiosity however, given its size, this was not an option. No inflatable of any conceivable size could allow for Curiosity to smoothly bounce off the surface.

So NASA had to try something else that has never been done before.

Editorial Note: Howard Wolowitz was not involved in the NASA mission.
As anyone knows, he deals exclusively with the International Space Station.

After dealing with the 3,800 degree Farenheit temperature created upon entry and attempting to slow the speed of entry enough with parachutes (the "easy" parts) eight small “retrorockets” would deploy after the parachute is jettisoned a mile above the surface, turning the rover into a small hovercraft. This will slow its descent to 2 mph and then — at about 66 feet above the planet’s surface — it will attempt the trickiest step.

It's called the sky-crane manoeuvre.

The retrorockets risk stirring up a dust storm and possibly blinding the rover’s instruments. So the hovercraft will then use nylon cords to gently lower the rover to the surface. The hovercraft will then fly off and eventually crash on the Martian surface.

“The Curiosity landing is the hardest NASA robotic mission ever attempted in the history of exploration of Mars — or any of our robotic exploration (missions),” said John Grunsfeld, head of NASA’s science directorate. “This is risky business.”

A failure at any point in this basically meant a failed mission.

And there is a precedence. There has been more than 36 attempts to land on Mars made by the US, Soviets and Japanese since the advent of space travel in the 1960s. More than half of those have failed.

Curiosity didn't. And now it is happily (as a robot could be anyway) trudging along to what science hopes would be a lifetime of discovery.

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