Today’s the day.
Basically, a one-ton widget known as the Mars Rover, and nicknamed “Curiosity”, is scheduled to land on Mars later tonight. At 1 ton in weight, and about the size of the ubiquitous Volkswagen Beetle, it’s one hell of a lot bigger than previous Mars rovers.
As we sit here now the whole assembly is scooting toward Mars at about 13,000 mph. Soon, a matter of hours, after the resistance from the Martian atmosphere has scrubbed the speed down to about 900 mph, and when the craft is about 7 miles from the planet’s surface, the heat shield will be ditched and a parachute will deploy to slow the descent to 180 mph.
At that point the craft will be about a mile above the Mars’ surface, whereupon a rocket-powered stage will take over, ultimately slowing the whole assembly down to about 2 mph at a altitude of 66 feet.
This is where it all starts to get really cool. The rover itself will then detach from the main assembly and be lowered to the Martian surface by, well, ropes. Fancy and expensive ropes to be sure, but ropes nevertheless. Upon landing, the rover will detach from the now hovering rocket assembly, which will then fire its rockets once more to propel it up and out of the way. That “mother” rocket stage will then crash land somewhere off in the distance, leaving the rover to begin unfolding its various components — masts, solar panels, antennae, cameras etc. — like some giant Swiss Army Knife.
Keep in mind this is happening on Mars, which last I checked is kinda far away (154 million miles, give or take), and not just anywhere on Mars, but at a particular point on Mars. And it’s all automated, computer controlled with on-board instrumentation. All that the ground crew here on Earth can do is monitor the situation and hope it works. They will find out about 14 minutes after the fact, since that’s how long it takes for data to be transmitted from there to here.
You can keep up with events on NASA’s TV channel, with coverage beginning at 10:30 pm ET tonight (8:30 pm Pacific). If all goes well there should be some remarkable images and video of the whole process.
KevinNevada … paging Mr. KevinNevada … white courtesy telephone please ….