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Mars rover's crazy-looking landing plan is technically sound, says NASA (+video)

NASA scientists say that the Mars Curiosity rover's audacious August 5 landing plan, which involves a hypersonic parachute, retrorockets, and a hovering 'sky crane' system is exactly what is needed for the $2.5 billion rover.

By Clara MoskowitzSpace.com / July 25, 2012

This artist's concept depicts a sky crane lowering NASA's Curiosity rover onto the Martian surface.

JPL-Caltech/NASA

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Many have been fretting about the seemingly implausible, risky landing strategy of the new Mars rover Curiosity set to arrive on the Red Planet next month, but engineers say the worry is overblown.

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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.

Curiosity, the Mini Cooper-size centerpiece of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission, is due to be lowered onto the Martian surface by a hovering Sky Crane holding it up via tethers. Despite the audacity of the concept, many aerospace engineers say the plan is solid.

"I agree it looks scary, it looks risky, but it's technically sound," said Georgia Institute of Technology professor Bobby Braun, who served as NASA chief technologist from 2010-2011. Braun was not part of the engineering team, based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., that designed the Curiosity landing system. "In my view, it's not risky, it's actually the right way to land the system they're trying to land."

The new $2.5 billion rover is designed to analyze samples of Mars rock for signs that our planetary neighbor is, or ever was, habitable to life. Weighing in at 1 ton, Curiosity is too heavy to land with the assistance of cushioning airbags, like NASA's previous two Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity.

Instead, parachutes will slow the MSL descent stage toward Mars at first. Then, the descent stage will use rocket engines to dampen its speed further. Finally, at about 115 feet (35 meters) above the surface, the Sky Crane system will lower Curiosity, wheels-down, toward the ground, attached to nylon tethers. The rover is designed to be gently settled on the surface, after which the Sky Crane will detach and fly off to land a distance away. [How Curiosity's Nail-Biting Landing Works (Pictures)]

The plan requires a large number of sophisticated parts to work impeccably, and is utterly different than any previous mechanism used to land a machine on another planet, prompting some to charge that it's a scheme Rube Goldberg would have approved.

"A lot of people seem skeptical of it. I'm not," said Stephen Gorevan, chairman of New York City robotics firm Honeybee Robotics, which built Curiosity's internal Sample Manipulation System, but wasn't involved with the landing strategy. "I just think, the thing has been so tested. I see the electromechanical elements, I'm an engineer, I see at least each individual element of the scheme seems very reliable to me. It's new, it's daring, but I see it working."

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