NASA anxious over Mars probe’s ‘seven minutes of terror’ (video)

PASADENA, Calif. — Seven minutes of terror.

It sounds like a Hollywood thriller, but the phrase describes the anxiety NASA is expecting as its car-sized robotic rover tries a tricky landing on Mars late Sunday.

Skimming the top of the Martian atmosphere at 13,000 mph, the Curiosity rover needs to brake to a stop — in seven minutes.

The rover is headed for a two-year mission to study whether Mars ever had the elements needed for microbial life. Because of its heft, the 2,000-pound robot can’t land the way previous spacecraft did. They relied on air bags to cushion a bouncy touchdown. This time NASA is testing a brand new landing that involves gingerly setting down the rover similar to the way heavy-lift helicopters lower huge loads at the end of a cable. How hard is it? “The degree of difficulty is above a 10,” says Adam Steltzner, an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which manages the mission.

And American University space policy analyst Howard McCurdy says: “It would be a major technological step forward if it works. It’s a big gamble.”

A communication time delay between Mars and Earth means Curiosity will have to nail the landing by itself, following the half million lines of computer code that engineers uploaded to direct its every move.

After an 8 1/2-month, 352-million-mile journey, here’s a step-by-step look at how Curiosity will land:

• Ten minutes before entering the Martian atmosphere, Curiosity separates from the capsule that carried it to Mars.

• Turning its protective heat shield forward, it streaks through the atmosphere at 13,200 mph, slowing itself with a series of S-curves.

• Seven miles from the ground at 900 mph, Curiosity unfurls its enormous parachute.

• Next it sheds its heat shield and turns on radar to scope out the landing site. Now it’s 5 miles from touchdown and closing in at 280 mph.

• A video camera aboard Curiosity starts to record the descent.

• A mile from landing, the parachute is jettisoned.

• Curiosity is still attached to a rocket-powered backpack, and those rockets are used to slow it to less than 2 mph.

• Twelve seconds before landing, nylon cables release and lower Curiosity. Once it senses six wheels on the ground, it cuts the cords. The hovering rocket-powered backpack flies out of the way, crashing some distance away.

Learn more

NASA’s Mars site: http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/

More in Local News

Herald photos of the week

A weekly collection of The Herald’s best images by staff photographers and… Continue reading

This week’s Herald Super Kid is Nathan Nicholson of Snohomish High School. (Dan Bates / The Herald)
‘The future is biotech,’ but for now he’s busy with everything

Snohomish senior Nathan Nicholson is a student leader and media master.

Longboarders from near and far hit the trail in Arlington

The Centennial Sk8 Festival was serious competition for some and just for fun for others.

Council passes six-month moratorium on safe injection sites

Proposal by County Councilman Nate Nehring passed unanimously.

Crews recover body of man who fell over Wallace Falls

The area where the man fell is called Sky Valley Lookout, 2.4 miles from the parking lot.

Big fire destroys building on Broadway in Everett

A person was rescued, but there were no immediate reports of injuries.

Luring attempt reported in Mountlake Terrace

The driver allegedly instructed a boy to get in the truck and help grab a scooter he was giving away.

A place to live: Clearing a barrier for former sex workers

A nonprofit’s house “will be a safe place” for former prostitutes and sex-trafficking victims.

A customer walks away after buying a hot dog from a vendor on 33rd St and Smith Street near the Everett Station on Friday. The Everett Station District Alliance pictures the area east of Broadway and south of Hewitt Avenue as a future neighborhood and transit hub that could absorb expected population growth. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
How can Everett Station become a vibrant part of city?

A neighborhood alliance focused on long-term revitalization will update the public Tuesday.

Most Read