The mission in Mars continues for NASA scientists with the Curiosity rover landing on Sunday, August 5.
The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) team began exploring Mars in 2004 with the rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Traveling farther and designed with more advanced instruments, Curiosity is taking the exploration to a new level.
“This is actually kind of scary in an engineering sense,” said James Bell, Ames technical lead for supersonic parachute opening. “There’s a lot of things that have to go right.”
The Curiosity, the most advanced robot ever sent to another world, will land beside Mount Sharp in Gale Crater because scientists believe they will find water there, according to the NASA Ames press release.
Once landing on Mars, the Curiosity rover will inspect qualities that contribute to the availability for life on Mars such as potential energy available and hazardous life. With tools on the robotic arm, the Chemistry and Mineralogy instrument will identify minerals in samples of rock and soil as well as search for signs of water.
In the seven minute journey that the spacecraft takes to release the rover, many operations including the parachute and heat shield must execute smoothly.
Bell said that when you change a handful of factors from what they normally are, it gets scary.
“New things always cause fear,” said Bell.
What makes this landing so challenging is the precise landing. Because of the improved capabilities with Curiosity, the target area of about 20 km (or 12 miles) long is feasible, according to the MSL site.
During the last several seconds, the spacecraft will lower the rover with three nylon cords onto the surface. The spacecraft must slow down from 13,200 mph, so that the rover can land at about 1.7 mph on the surface of Mars without kicking up dust.
Various animations show the rover’s precise landing with the most popular, Seven Minutes of Terror.
“When you watch these animations, they show how it’s supposed to work,” said Rabi Mehta, experimental aero-physics branch chief.
Animations are one thing, and video games are another. Microsoft’s “Mars Rover Landing” Xbox game allows players to simulate landing the rover with their own body moment, using Kinect technology.
Mehta said that there is no connection between the video game and the actual landing. However Bell drew a connection between the physics of landing a rover on Mars and a human’s body movement.
Bell said, “On a really basic level, the physics of doing all these flying things is similar to the basics of standing up or skiing down a hill.”
Mehta, who worked on the parachute component of the system, said, “If the chute doesn’t work, then the rest doesn’t matter.”
To test the parachute, he made a 2-percent-scale model about the size of a basketball. Based on computational fluid dynamics (CFD) testing, the real size was deployed in the largest air tunnel on the NASA campus in Mountain View. The drag, canopy, wake and velocity were a few factors that they measured.
Robin Beck, a Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer for the thermal system, worked on the heat shield for the rover.
“This is the first time that a heat shield will get turbulent heating,” said Beck.
The heat shield material was the no. 1 risk for 18 months. Then the material was redesigned at Ames to withstand the harshest conditions.
Beck said she has no doubt that the heat shield will do what it was created for. On top of preparing for the worst of the worst, they added 30-percent margins.
“We designed everything for the worst worst case,” she said. “You can see how overdesigned it is. The material that we’re using is overkill.”
The Curiosity rover is a large-scale endeavor that involves thousands of scientists and researchers. While to some people this may just be another NASA mission, to others it’s the possibility for life on Mars.
“If you took a poll, I think 90 percent wouldn’t understand the importance of it,” said Mehta.
You would think it would take a split second to get information from Mars to Mountain View, just as it takes to communicate from New York City to Mountain View. However on August 5, we won’t know how the rover landing went until minutes after 10:31 p.m. since it takes greater time for that information to be communicated.
While we’re standing in Mountain View waiting to hear whether there is possibility for life on Mars, scientists will operate Curiosity’s instruments through remote control.
“I don’t think the average Joe on the street realizes that all of these things are happening remotely,” said Mehta.
On Sunday, August 5 there will be a public Mars Rover Curiosity Landing event from 5 p.m. to 12 a.m. at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View. See demonstrations of Curiosity, ask scientists your burning questions and hear live updates from the spacecraft in Mars. Reserve your ticket online.