What causes the '7 minutes of terror' in Mars Rover landing? (+video)
The NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity Rover, a mobile robot for investigating Mars's present or past ability to sustain microbial life, is due to land on August 5, almost nine months after its launch.
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"This big huge parachute that we've got, it'll only slow us down to about 200 miles per hour," Rivellini said. "And that's not slow enough to land. So we have no choice, but we've got to cut it off and then come down on rockets."Skip to next paragraph
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The rockets can't fire all the way to the ground, however, or they'd raise a huge dust cloud that could damage the rover's instruments and mechanisms, researchers said. To avoid such a ruckus, Curiosity will be lowered to the Martian surface on 21-foot-long (6.4 meters) cables. When the rover is safely down, the cables will be released and the rocket-propelled sky crane will fly off so it doesn't crash into Curiosity.
The 14-minute communications lag between Earth and Mars means that the MSL team won't be getting real-time updates about the rover's perilous journey.
"When we first get word that we've touched the top of the atmosphere, the vehicle has been alive, or dead, on the surface for at least seven minutes," Steltzner said.
Looking for habitable environments
Curiosity's main task is to determine if the Gale Crater area is, or ever was, capable of supporting microbial life.
The rover will explore the crater and Mount Sharp, a mysterious 3-mile-high (5 km) mountain rising from Gale's center. It will climb partway up Mount Sharp, examining the mound's various layers with 10 different science instruments, including a rock-zapping laser and gear that can identify organic compounds — the carbon-containing building blocks of life as we know it.
Curiosity's prime mission is slated to last one Martian year, which is slightly less than two Earth years. However, it may be able to go longer. NASA's Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers, for example, far outlasted their 90-day warranties after landing in January 2004. Spirit was declared dead just last year, and Opportunity is still going strong.
- 7 Minutes of Terror: Curiosity Rover's Risky Mars Landing | Video
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