Curiosity: Mars or Bust!

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?

Because Earth will set beyond the Martian horizon just two minutes before the rover’s landing, Curiosity will bounce its landing confirmation signal off NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter — a 2001 mission that is still paying dividends.

Curiosity should be able to send back low-resolution fisheye black-and-white images within two hours of landing (perhaps within a few minutes, if conditions are optimal). High-rez and color images could take up to a week as NASA slowly and carefully brings other instruments online. One of the most important tasks will be raising a high-gain directional antenna on the first day.

Once Curiosity has wheels on the ground and its systems up and running, the nuclear-powered rover will focus more than a dozen cameras, tools, drills and a laser on an analysis of Martian geology. It’s most important priority will be to find carbon. Life as we understand it on Earth requires water, energy and carbon. While previous missions have discovered evidence of water on Mars in the past (but no liquid water right now), the robots have not found carbon, so Curiosity will analyze Mount Sharp’s exposed layers for traces of carbon.

Mission commanders chose Gale Crater precisely because of Mount Sharp, which rises from the pit’s center, has been worn away by winds, exposing centuries of sediment layers, making it easy to peer back into the Martian past. Also, Mount Sharp has several features (such as an alluvial fan) that point to water existing there in the past.

But all of that is dependent on a safe landing, and that’s what’s supposed to happen tonight. To me, the landing will be much more exciting than the London Olympics.

Let’s go, Curiosity! Make Earth proud!

ETA: Curiosity made it! “Safe on Mars!”

Oh, yeah? Sez you!

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