To paraphrase my favorite late-night host, Craig Ferguson, “It’s a great night for America!”
Tonight is the night that NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity is set to land on the Red Planet. The $2.5 billion, 1-ton, car-sized robot is slated to touch down near the base of Mount Sharp inside the Gale Crater near the equator of our planetary neighbor at about 10:31 p.m. PDT (yes, that’s technically 1:31 a.m. tomorrow for me), kicking off the two-year Mars Science laboratory mission.
What makes this particular mission so exciting is not just the advanced science the robot will perform (see below), but the revolutionary way in which Curiosity will make planetfall. The rover is too heavy to bounce to the surface in a cocoon of cushioning airbags, so NASA engineers came up with what sounds like an insane plan: lower it to surface with a sky crane. Naturally. Why didn’t I think of that?
The graphic explains it much better than I can, but basically, the heat-shielded descent vehicle will stop in midair above the Martian surface and then lower the rover on a cable, release it, and then self-crash a safe distance away. What could go wrong?