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Will NASA's Mars rover land safely? Glitch could delay news. (+video)

NASA's Curiosity rover is due to touch down on the Martian surface on August 5, but a malfunction in another NASA spacecraft orbiting Mars will mean we'll all have to wait longer to find out if the landing is successful.  

By Denise / July 17, 2012

This illustration depicts the moment immediately after the Curiosity Mars rover touches down on the Red Planet.




NASA is just 20 days away from landing a car-size rover on Mars, but mission managers might have to wait a little longer than anticipated to learn whether the challenging touchdown succeeds or not.

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This 11-minute animation depicts key events of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission, which will launch in late 2011 and land a rover, Curiosity, on Mars in August 2012.

NASA's 1-ton Curiosity rover, the centerpiece of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission, is slated to land on the Martian surface on the night of Aug. 5 to investigate whether the planet is, or ever was, capable of harboring past or present microbial life. But first, the rover will have to survive a harrowing journey through the Red Planet's atmosphere — a process that has been nicknamed the "seven minutes of terror."

"[T]he Curiosity landing is the hardest NASA robotic mission ever attempted in the history of exploration of Mars, or any of our robot exploration," John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, said in a news briefing today (July 16) at the agency's headquarters in Washington, D.C. "This is risky business."

And a glitch in an aging Mars orbiter may compromise Earth's communications with Curiosity slightly, forcing the mission team to wait a few more agonizing minutes to learn the fate of their $2.5 billion rover. [How Curiosity's Nail-Biting Landing Works (Pictures)]

An unprecedented landing

Since Curiosity is too large for an airbag-assisted landing, NASA is using a complex and unprecedented sky crane system to safely lower the rover onto the surface of the Red Planet. This sequence of events — called entry, descent and landing (EDL) — will last approximately seven minutes.

"Those seven minutes are the most challenging part of this entire mission," said Pete Theisinger, MSL project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "For the landing to succeed, hundreds of events will need to go right, many with split-second timing and all controlled autonomously by the spacecraft."

As Curiosity streaks through the Martian atmosphere, the spacecraft must slow itself from roughly 13,200 mph (about 21,250 kilometers per hour) to zero in only seven minutes. The rocket-powered sky crane, which acts similar to a backpack with three nylon cords attached, will help to control the rover's descent.

"EDL is like a game of dominoes," said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters. "With the release of the cruise stage, that's the first domino that's been flicked. If one of them is out of place, it's very likely that the last domino does not fall, which means MSL Curiosity may hit the ground harder than we'd like it to."

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