Early in the morning of August 6th, a 900 kg, 3 m long, 2.7 m wide and 2.2 m tall rover will take the ride of a life time that would make Wall-e jealous.
Having travelled more than 560 million Km since its launch in November, 2011, the Mars Science Laboratory, named Curiosity, will entre the final stages of its journey to Mars. In seven minutes it will slow its speed from around 20,000 Km/h to almost zero and attempt a soft landing on the surface of our red neighbour.
Being the largest and, arguably, the most complicated rover ever sent to another planet, Curiosity’s landing will be a nail bitter. As it slows through the atmosphere the heat shield protecting the rover will reach an astounding 1,600°C.
Once it has slowed to a mere 1,600 Km/h, a supper sonic parachute opens with enough force to make even the hardiest jet fighter pilots lose their lunch. This will only slow Curiosity to bellow the speed of sound.
Once slowed, the heat shield is shot off allowing radar to start looking at the ground beneath the careening craft. In a matter of seconds the onboard computers have to locate their target, Gale Crater.
Finally slowed to around 320 Km/h, Curiosity and its sky crane are dropped from the parachute. Rockets will further slow the craft on the last 3 Km of its descent.
Finally reaching a speed of around 3 Km/h, the sky crane lowers Curiosity the last 12 m to the surface before cutting its cables and blasting off away from the rover.
If all goes well, we will find out that Curiosity has survived its seven minute, adrenaline pumping, heart stopping ride 14 minutes after it has already happened – that is how long it takes the radio signals to reach us back on Earth. When we first know that Curiosity has hit the atmosphere, the rover is already on the red dusty surface, but we still won’t know if it is collecting data or smashed on the surface for an agonizing quarter hour.
You can tune into NASA TV at 12:30 CDT am on August 6th to follow Curiosity’s progress. To learn more about the rover you can also visit the Mars Science Laboratory website or watch William Shatner talk you through Curiosity’s amazing ride.