Curiosity’s shadow on Mars
After traveling for more than eight months through over 350 million miles of space, the Curiosity rover landed safely on the surface of Mars a few hours ago. The 1-ton, $2.5 billion, SUV-sized robot was lowered gently to the planet on a tether from a rocket-fired sky crane almost exactly on the target time of 1:31 a.m. EDT Monday. (I think it was a few seconds early.)
This was an amazing victory for NASA, not only because it puts the most high-powered, sophisticated robotic laboratory ever on the surface of our red neighbor, but because the sky crane delivery system is revolutionary – and, let’s face it, kind of an insane idea to risk billions of dollars on – and the success of the landing should ease the path to more funding for the beleaguered space agency at a time when budget cuts are pushing pure science to the back burner.
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?