Mars Rover, Curiosity, Will Face Seven Minutes of Terror on August 5

In the video above, NASA engi­neers explain the extreme­ly pre­cise cal­cu­la­tions gov­ern­ing the land­ing of Curios­i­ty, the sev­enth Mars Rover since the failed Sovi­et Mars 2 and 3 mis­sions in 1971. Launched in Novem­ber of 2011, Curios­i­ty is sched­uled to touch down in Gale Crater at exact­ly 10:31PM Pacif­ic time, this August 5th. Using dra­mat­ic com­put­er-gen­er­at­ed imagery, the video shows the rover’s approach as it breach­es the atmos­phere and hur­tles toward the sur­face of the plan­et in sev­er­al com­pli­cat­ed stages, a descent that takes exact­ly sev­en min­utes. The engi­neers call this span of time “sev­en min­utes of ter­ror”; since the sig­nal delay from the space­craft to earth is four­teen min­utes, NASA engi­neers must wait an addi­tion­al sev­en min­utes after its entry to learn whether the entire­ly-com­put­er-guid­ed craft has made it safe­ly to the sur­face or crashed and burned. Since it’s speed­ing down from the upper atmos­phere at 13,000 miles an hour and heat­ing up to 1600 degrees, their fears are cer­tain­ly war­rant­ed. And fear may be a sym­bol­i­cal­ly appro­pri­ate emo­tion­al response to a plan­et named for the ancient god of war, with moons named Pho­bos and Diemos—“fear” and “ter­ror,” respec­tive­ly.

The Mars pro­gram has had sev­er­al false starts and a his­to­ry very much root­ed in the Cold War space race. Dur­ing the the 1960s, the U.S. and USSR sent com­pet­ing fly­by and orbiter mis­sions to the red plan­et, but it wasn’t until July 4, 1997 that NASA was able to land a func­tion­ing rover, the Pathfind­er, on the sur­face. A British-led attempt to land anoth­er rover, Bea­gle 2, was a fail­ure, but NASA suc­cess­ful­ly land­ed Spir­it in Jan­u­ary, 2004.  Sad­ly, Spir­it became mired in the thick sand of the planet’s sur­face and could not be freed. Spir­it’s twin, Oppor­tu­ni­ty, made a suc­cess­ful land­ing two weeks lat­er and has con­tin­ued to oper­ate with­out seri­ous inci­dent, save peri­ods of down­time over the Mars win­ter, when its solar pan­els can­not col­lect enough sun­light to pow­er it. Intend­ed to find signs of water on the plan­et, Oppor­tu­ni­ty has made dis­cov­er­ies that pro­vide clues to the geo­log­i­cal his­to­ry of Mars. After its ninth year of work, NASA’s only func­tion­ing rover is begin­ning to show its age. NASA engi­neers hope the S.U.V.-sized Curios­i­ty will sur­vive its ordeal and con­tin­ue the work of its pre­de­ces­sors, seek­ing more signs of water, and maybe find­ing signs of life.

J. David Jones is cur­rent­ly a doc­tor­al stu­dent in Eng­lish at Ford­ham Uni­ver­si­ty and a co-founder and for­mer man­ag­ing edi­tor of Guer­ni­ca / A Mag­a­zine of Arts and Pol­i­tics.

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Comments (4)
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  • Adam Trotter says:

    Amaz­ing video. But in your post, you imply that NASA’s Spir­it rover got stuck at land­ing and was a fail­ure. Quite the con­trary: it enjoyed a very pro­duc­tive 5‑year career and near­ly 5‑mile jour­ney across the sur­face of Mars. Quite a remark­able suc­cess, giv­en the orig­i­nal 90-day intend­ed mis­sion plan! (And its twin, Oppor­tu­ni­ty, is still going.)

  • jdavidjones says:

    Of course, thanks for point­ing that out, Adam! Spir­it did indeed have a notable career that should­n’t be ignored.

  • Jennifer Yennam says:

    great video, inter­est­ed to know more and more about the red plan­et… look­ing for­ward to see it’s suc­cess­ful land­ing and long life.

  • Darin Selby says:

    Most of us Baby Boomers have allowed our­selves to be brain­washed into believ­ing that “Mom, apple pie, and launch the Mars Rover!” is the way to go.

    In the process, the plan­et is being trashed by more and more launch­es, as the indus­try WORLDWIDE increas­es, to launch even PRIVATIZED space vehi­cles, based upon the tried and test­ed tech­nol­o­gy of the envi­ron­men­tal­ly-dis­as­ter­ous Space Shut­tle era.

    At this point, I ques­tion the need to go into out­er space at all, to accom­plish the very thing that we’re col­lec­tive­ly seek­ing to do in the first place.

    This veil of hypocrisy of the space pro­gram being for the ‘bet­ter­ment of all Mankind’ must be lift­ed, to reveal what is REALLY going on with the trash­ing of the envi­ron­ment at large.

    I’ve just writ­ten an arti­cle about what I feel are “Four Fac­tu­al Errors about the Space Pro­gram” — includ­ing a much bet­ter, cheap­er and more reli­able way that NASA already had to land their ‘Curios­i­ty’ rover on Mars.

    Oth­er fol­low-up mate­r­i­al to study as well:

    Do share with me your thoughts.

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