If you’re the nervous type, then you probably don’t want to hear about the innumerable things that could go wrong when NASA’s $2.5 billion Curiosity rover descends from the outer Martian atmosphere to the surface of our red neighbor in the late night hours of August 5th. NASA itself has dubbed the landing “Seven Minutes of Terror.” From a heat shield that will have to endure steel-melting temperatures to a rocket-powered sky crane that’s never been tested in space, the catalog of potentially fatal complications is beyond daunting.
There’s also history to consider. Spirit and Opportunity notwithstanding, fewer than half of previous Mars missions have been successful. As it has in past explorations, NASA is relying on some of the brightest minds at Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to safely deposit Curiosity onto Mars’ dusty soil. If they succeed, the payoff is potentially huge: Spirit and Opportunity, which landed on 2003, helped prove that water once existed on the surface of Mars. The 760-pound, nuclear-powered Curiosity rover is a next generation machine equipped with a geological toolbox that will look for signs that Mars was hospitable to life. NASA has more renderings of the rover here.
I spoke to Steven Lee, guidance navigation and control systems manager for JPL’s Mars Science Laboratory, about how scientists will land Curiosity at its target inside Mars’ Gale Crater and begin the search for life on Mars. It won’t be an easy landing. In fact, there’s a game that you can play to get an idea of just how complicated this is.
Below, a video shows how the rover works.