Tuesday, March 13, 2012

NASA’s newest Mars project is the most ambitious of its kind ever undertaken

DROP ZONE NASA scientists have developed a better way to get from space to the Martian surface: a “sky crane.” Bob Sauls

PopSci - On August 5, NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory will reach the outer edge of the Martian atmosphere. The 8,500-pound craft will have traveled 352 million miles at speeds of up to 13,200 mph, but its real work will have only just begun. Over the next seven minutes it will plummet through 80 miles of atmosphere, withstanding temperatures of up to 3,800°F, and guide itself to a sudden halt in the massive Gale Crater.

The MSL is the most ambitious Mars project to date. Its rover, named Curiosity, is twice as long and five times as heavy as its predecessors, Spirit and Opportunity. Its 150-square-mile landing zone is a third of the size of that of previous missions, requiring unprecedented accuracy. And whereas the previous rovers traveled less than a mile during their three-month-long primary missions, Curiosity will drive up to 12 miles over the course of a full Martian year, which lasts 687 Earth-days.

The MSL’s objective is to determine if Mars has—or ever had—the conditions necessary to support life. And it will do so with the most advanced set of scientific tools included on any off-Earth expedition. The MSL is more than just a Mars mission, though. It is also a test of several newly developed devices and techniques that will drive NASA projects for decades to come, from expeditions to the Jovian ice moon Europa to manned missions to Mars.



Five of the 11 missions that have reached the Martian atmosphere have failed during the entry, descent and landing (EDL) stage, which is why engineers nicknamed the process “seven minutes of terror.” For the MSL mission, researchers rethought how spacecraft undertake EDL. They replaced ballistic entry with a more accurate guided-entry system and developed a new landing method—the sky crane—that could become standard on large rover missions.                   More