Super awesome ‘Curiosity’ approaches Mars, set for ‘Seven Minutes of Terror’

The plan to land the roving space lab Curiosity on Mars this weekend is the stuff of the wildest imaginations. Seriously, Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick would’ve killed for this storyline in “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

In what is being hailed as one of the most challenging space maneuvers ever, NASA’s Curiosity will endure the “Seven Minutes of Terror,” or a sequence of highly technical, complicated and downright acrobatic moves, that must be perfectly executed for the craft to land safely on the surface of Mars. The mission’s purpose is to find any evidence of life, past or present, on the Red Planet.

“The Curiosity landing is the hardest NASA robotic mission ever attempted,” says John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Science News magazine. “This is risky business.”

If you watch nothing else all day, please make it be this video. It doesn’t just explain the landing, it lays out all the science and amazing engineering in a super-suspenseful, nail-biting, will-it-or-won’t-it-make-it? way. It is nothing short of phenomenal:

This TIME magazine piece does a superb job of explaining the landing, too.

Here are some other fun factoids gathered about the Curiosity Mars Landing to bring you up to speed:

  • Curiosity launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Nov. 26, 2011, and is scheduled to land Sunday, Aug. 5, at 10:30 p.m. PT.
  • Curiosity is about twice as long (about 3 meters or 10 feet) and five times as heavy as NASA’s twin Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, launched in 2003.
  • It will barrel toward Mars at as astonishing 13,000 mph, or 21,250 k/h, only to be slowed by a combination of the largest parachute NASA’s built to date, rockets and a “sky crane” to safely lower it to the surface.
  • It’s destination is Gale Crater, 154 km wide, and Mount Sharp.
  • Transmissions from the Curiosity take 14 minutes to reach NASA scientists, creating that “seven minutes of terror” they speak of on the landing, the time it will take once it enters Mars’ atmosphere to hit the surface…the seven-minute lag will mean that NASA scientists will have no idea if it made it or not during that time period.
  • It will carry an onboard camera that is set to capture the entire experience and broadcast its findings back to Earth.
  • Cost? A cool $2.5 billion.

You can watch on your own at home (here’s the NASA TV schedule) or get together with others. Several Seattle-area events will celebrate this stellar space event, tipped off to us by Sally James of the Northwest Science Writers Association (thanks, Sally!), highlighted below:

Mars Landing Watch at the KenneyAlice Enevoldsen from the Pacific Science Center and “AstroInfo” has put together this event. It’s free, it’s open to everyone, and it’s at the Kenney, 7125 Fauntleroy Way SW. She suggests arriving by 10 p.m. Sunday to get settled in.

The Museum of Flight: MarsFest 2012 is at the Museum, 9404 E. Marginal Way S., starting at 6:30 p.m. Sunday. It is a free, family-friendly party that will feature Mars-related games, activities, guest speakers and a live link to the Planetary Society’s Planetfest 2012 in Pasadena, Calif., starring Bill Nye. And, of course, the “seven minutes of terror” will be shown on a big screen via a live link to the NASA feed.

Pacific Science Center:  The Discovery Corps, 200 Second Ave. North, is holding a day-after party, watching the landing at 12:30 p.m., Monday, Aug. 6, in case you missed it the night before. Or if you just want to relive the glory. And if you just can’t wait until Sunday, the Center is showing “Sky Tonight” daily showings that are focused on Curiosity and new NASA content and images, appropriate for kids grade two and up.

Happy landings!

  • Joe D’Coder

    Molly, your comment about being slowed down by the chute, rockets and sky crane is true but you left out the heat shield role in removing 90% of the speed. The vast majority of the slowing occurs from atmospheric friction against the heat shield.
    The chute kills another 9% and the rest is from the rocket thrusters.

  • http://www.addvalue.com.au/ Bran Deditems

    I do think space exploration is awesome. Worth every penny. Much more value than giving it away to lazy people, politicians and foreign countries.

  • http://twitter.com/keithccurtis Keith Curtis

    This is great. After this we should build a space elevator.