2012: A Mars Odyssey

By Ed Reynolds

Gambling with a daring landing method, NASA plans to explore Mars with the largest, most sophisticated surface-roaming robot ever created.

Shortly after midnight on August 6, 2012, NASA will attempt another in a long history of successful outer- space engineering marvels. An unmanned spacecraft with the unsexy name of Mars Science Laboratory will complete its 8-month, 352 million mile, mission from Earth to Mars by setting a one-ton rover named Curiosity on the planet.

This artist's concept shows the "sky crane” lowering NASA's Curiosity rover to the Martian surface.

This artist’s concept shows the “sky crane” lowering NASA’s Curiosity rover to the Martian surface.

NASA has placed robots on Mars in the past, most notably the rovers Spirit and Opportunity in 2003 (Opportunity continues to function). Because neither of those rovers is bigger than a golf cart, large airbags were used to cushion the landings. Curiosity—which is as big as an automobile—will require a feat never attempted by the space agency, the lowering of a Mars rover using a rocket-equipped crane.

Upon arrival, the spacecraft will hurtle into the Martian atmosphere at 13,000 mph. Toward the end of a seven-minute descent to the planet’s surface, a parachute will unfurl when the spacecraft slows to 1,000 mph. It’s the strongest super-sonic parachute ever made, able to withstand forces generated at twice the speed of sound. The plunging spaceship will slow to 200 mph then a smaller spacecraft will be released from the parachuting vehicle. Powered by rocket engines that will allow the small craft to slowly descend to around 20 feet from the surface, several 21-foot long tethers will set Curiosity on Martian soil at 12:17 a.m. central time. Upon touchdown, the tethers will quickly be released and the spacecraft that serves as a crane will immediately fly away to crash far from Curiosity. A tiny camera on Curiosity will record the landing.

The mission is the latest in a string of unmanned Mars landings over the past five decades—some successful, some not. The Soviet Union’s Mars 2 lander crashed into the surface in 1971, the first man-made object to hit the planet. A few weeks later, Russia’s Mars 3 became the first spacecraft to land successfully. It communicated with Earth for only 14 seconds before dying. The first NASA spacecraft to land successfully on Mars was Viking 1 in 1976, followed by Viking 2 two weeks later. The first Viking communicated for 6 years, the second for two years.

Given the public’s short attention span, it comes as no surprise that America had little interest in sending people to Mars after the Apollo 11 Moon landing in 1969. Once we beat the Russians to the Moon, it was difficult to muster enthusiasm for further exploration. Mars was the next predicted frontier for astronauts, but political and public apathy ended those dreams. The post-Apollo rocket was the Space Shuttle, which generated little more than a ripple of excitement. The shuttle may be the most complex machine ever built, but it didn’t have the power to venture farther than low Earth orbit. Its most daring missions involved repairing the Hubble Space Telescope some 350 miles away. Otherwise, for the past 40 years astronauts have been performing tasks a mere 220 miles from Earth.

Since the Space Shuttle fleet was retired, the United States has not possessed a spacecraft capable of sending astronauts to the International Space Station.

NASA must instead purchase rides onboard Russian Soyuz rockets for $60 million per seat. (For comparison, each shuttle mission cost around $450 million.) For $2.5 billion, NASA will be sending a robot to explore Mars for two years. Not only should we learn more about Mars’ composition and perhaps discover evidence of past or present Martian life, the postcards that Curiosity will beam back to Earth are sure to be breathtaking.

Humans traveling on spaceships may be romantic and exciting, but it’s NASA’s unmanned missions that have been the most thrilling in recent decades. The New Horizons spacecraft was launched by NASA in 2006 and will fly past Pluto in 2015. Orbiting space telescopes are looking billions of miles into the distance to uncover the universe’s past. The Voyager 1 craft that was launched in 1977 to fly past and study Jupiter and Saturn is now at the edge of our solar system. Within the next three years, it will be the first man-made object to enter interstellar space (the space between star systems in a galaxy).

So, stay up late on August 5 and visit www.nasa.gov to follow the mission. If all goes as planned, you’ll witness another phenomenal leap by mankind. To view the five-minute preview video “Curiosity’s Seven Minutes of Terror“. &

Originally published in Black & White Magazine July 26, 2012

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