Curiosity about Mars inspires insane engineering!
OK, so you want to land a big new versatile rover on Mars. Too big and heavy to use just a parachute, or even the giant bouncing blow-up pillow thingy from the last round of rovers, which were half the length and one-fifth the weight of the new one, which is dubbed Curiosity, and more formally, the Mars Science Laboratory. How's about we use the good ol' detachable heat shield with directional rockets to steer the thing as it careens into the atmosphere, a crazy-strong-but-light Supersonic Parachute, and a set of powerful retrorockets, then transform the whole unit into a Sky Crane that can gently lower the roving lab down then zip away before it fries its cargo? Oh, yeah! We got it!
Next week, Curiosity arrives at Mars, aiming to land right next to a mountain that rises inside a crater, revealing 3 billion years of Mars' sedimentary history. This NASA video – edited with far more pizzaz than most of theirs, definitely giving the talking head engineers more of a intense hero vibe than the geeky teacher thing I'm more used to from them – tells the tale of the “Seven Minutes of Terror” awaiting young Curiosity after it enters the Martian atmosphere:
And for a bit of added fun, Mars is hanging there in the evening sky for all of us to look up at and imagine Curiosity speeding toward. It'll land (or fry or crash) after Mars sets on August 5, but if all goes well, for the next few weeks, we can look up and see where our newest scientific emissary is doing its job, sending photos and videos offering a close up look at that rocky orange orb in our evening sky.
UPDATE, 8/6/12: Success! AstroBob has ongoing coverage as the images start rolling; one of the orbiting Mars probes was even perfectly situated for a look at the landing!
When checking out Mars in the evening sky, you'll see three very different celestial denizens, two of them pieces of our extended solar body and one a relatively nearby galactic neighbor of our own star. Mars is, of course, a small rocky planet fairly close to Earth, trailing along behind us in the orbit just beyond ours as we slowly pull farther ahead of it on our “inside track” around the sun (which hides there a ways below the western horizon); Saturn is a ringed gas giant halfway across the solar system way out beyond the asteroids and Jupiter, now about six times farther away than Mars; Spica is a massive binary star on the other side of our galactic spiral arm. But this month, they all shine with just about equal brightness. As Curiosity settles in to its new landscape….