Mars Science Laboratory Touches Down Tonight

By Sean Carroll | August 5, 2012 9:37 am

Nowadays everyone calls it the “Curiosity rover,” but I got to know it as the Mars Science Laboratory, and I’m too old and set in my ways to switch. Launched on November 26, 2011, the mission is scheduled to land on Mars’s Gale Crater tonight/tomorrow morning: 5:31 UTC, which translates to 1:30 a.m. Eastern time or 10:20 p.m. Pacific. See here and here for info about where to watch. Between this and the Higgs boson, the universe is clearly conspiring to keep science enthusiasts on the East Coast from getting a proper night’s sleep.

NASA has done a great job getting people excited about the event, and one of their big successes has been this video, “Seven Minutes of Terror.” Love the ominous soundtrack.

Mars is about fourteen light-minutes away from Earth, so scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory aren’t actually able to fine-tune the spacecraft’s approach, like you used to do playing Lunar Lander in the arcade back in the day. Everything has to be carefully programmed well ahead of time, setting up an elaborately choreographed series of events that guides the lander through the seven-minute journey from the top of the Martian atmosphere to eventual touchdown. I still struggle with parallel parking, which is why I’m a theoretical physicist and not a JPL engineer.

This isn’t NASA’s first rodeo, of course. In 1997, the Mars Pathfinder mission sent an impossibly cute rover named Sojourner scurrying across the red planet’s landscape. The Mars Exploration Rover then landed in 2004, which included the plucky Spirit and Opportunity rovers. NASA lost contact with Spirit in 2010, after six years of operations, while Opportunity is still puttering along over eight years later. Not bad, considering the missions were originally planned to last for only 90 days.

Compared to the previous rovers, Curiosity is whomping big. It’s about the size of a Mini Cooper: ten feet long and massing 900 kg. (You would like to say “weighing about a ton,” but gravity on Mars is 38% that on Earth, so this is one of those times the mass/weight distinction is kind of crucial.) From left to right, here are models of Spirit/Opportunity (which were identical), Sojourner, and Curiosity, with some carbon-based life forms in the middle.

Unlike the previous solar-powered rovers, Curiosity runs on a radioisotope thermoelectric generator, so it won’t be subject to the whims of dust storms. It should be good for fourteen years worth of operations. Along the way, we’ll learn about Mars’s atmosphere and geology, and poke around looking for cave paintings or other signs of life. So here’s hoping we get through the seven minutes of terror safely, and inaugurate a new era in our exploration of the fourth rock from the Sun.

  • Marshall Eubanks

    This is the Mars program. There is literally no backup plan for what to do if it fails, and failure would set back US Mars science by, possibly, a decade or more. (I would vote to launch two more MER’s, with one going to the Hellas basin, but NASA doesn’t think like that.)

    So, if it comes down safely, the people who designed the sky-crane will deserve medals. If it doesn’t, they will face a Board of Inquiry.

  • Shecky R

    Between the Higgs and now the Rover, love seeing physics getting a good share of press & public attention these days… gotta help bend some impressionable (and bright) young minds out there in a sciency direction.

  • David W. Miller

    Will be on just in time to watch it with my morning coffee here in Geneva! Slightly *better* than the Higgs announcement, I might add.

    The first thing that amazes me is that enormous parachute (15.6m in diameter if you pause and look at the specs) only slows the capsule down to 200 MPH. I would love to see this thing in action.

    The second thing, as Marshall above implied, is this “skycrane.” It immediately reminded me of the Skyhook ( which was on the quals at Stanford my year. I think I only got half credit.

  • Marshall Eubanks

    A Phobos anchored space elevator could be used as a (just) super sonic skyhook for Mars – relative velocity = 550 m/sec. Now if we could just figure out how to fly in the Martian atmosphere…

  • Tom Dayton

    If you want to get some feel for what it’s like to be a flight controller watching telemetry from Curiosity, download NASA’s next-generation mission operations software, Mission Control Technologies (MCT). My team at NASA Ames Research Center recently made it open source under the Apache 2.0 license. The demo version can be downloaded and run with no computer knowledge, and does almost everything that the full version does, except save the displays you create. (Sorry, the demo version shows only fake data, though we are working on a plugin to let you see a small amount of real ISS data.)

    JPL’s Curiosity team will not be using MCT initially, because we had it ready too late for their schedule, but MCT’s views are similar to the views of the software that the Curiosity flight controllers are using, so you can get some idea. We have even built the data adapter so MCT can show Curiosity data, and have demonstrated it at JPL. On our web site there is also a three-minute overview video and a Quick Start Guide. Be sure to plug in the example plugins from the Plug Ins page! Find our web site by searching the internet for “NASA open MCT”. Also check out our blog, which is linked from our web site.

  • wenger

    Am ‘old geezer”, been following space stuff since I built my own rockets as a kid in the 60’s. Did research on comets with Delsemme. To me, greatest (luckiest?) mission(s) were Vikings back there in 1976. Lousy computers, didn’t know much about Mars atmosphere or surface, but damn things pulled off landings, may even have “seen” evidence of microbes.

    Remember 14th century europe amazement at finding a NEW WORLD?? If, if, if we do find evidence of present or past life on say Mars, can you imagine the new world that this would imply?? Maybe time finally for a true reformation. Ah well, the tribal gods still prevail.

  • Hank Baxter

    That video by JPL is breakthrough cinema for space buffs! On previous missions the stakes were high, the chances for disaster just as great, the loss of investment of careers and funding of the same magnitude. But Seven Minutes of Terror puts the viewer into the scary position of a JPL engineer, who bolt up in bed dreaming they made a mistake. Tonight the 7 minutes will be over, with Curiosity daring more mighty things.

  • Ray Gedaly

    With so much public excitement over this mission, it’s amazing that earlier this year the government slashed the Mars Exploration budget and withdrew NASA’s participation in the ExoMars astrobiology missions in 2016 and 2018.

  • Marshall Eubanks

    Touchdown confirmed – they sky crane worked like a charm (140 out of 390 kg of propellant left over) and the first pictures are back –

  • AI

    Another rover on Mars… doesn’t excite me sadly.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    Change “touches” to “touched”! Big, big, BIG congratulations to the rover team!

  • Doug Little

    Another rover on Mars… doesn’t excite me sadly.

    Not really another rover, more like a portable chemistry lab, it’s going to do some new science so I don’t know why you aren’t excited. Plus this has, by far, been the most complex landing ever attempted and it was 100% successful so we can look forward to more complex missions in the future, if NASA’s budget doesn’t get gutted that is. I hope they send a probe to Ganymede to drill through the ice and see what’s below within my lifetime, that would be cool.

  • Jim Gregory

    O/T but linked?
    Next there could be a surge in “When’s the manned mission going to happen?” Suppose it’s POSSIBLE but surely not feasible? If definite signs of life (extant or extinct) are found would it have any impact on religion?

  • Y. Santens

    I’m very curious to see what the next days will bring when they will have a look in the surrounding area, including the hill.

    @Jim Impact on religion? I don’t know… I mean, look around the internet and you see countless people ignoring or denying facts when discussing intelligent design to name one example.
    As a matter of fact, several youtube-comments on Mars landing-videos were the usual conspiracy theories, some anti-NASA/anti-US stuff (disclaimer, European myself 😛 ), complaining about the cost etc etc. So sadly I don’t see people change that much no matter the discoveries ahead.
    As long as science produces something convenient that changes their everyday life : great. But as soon as we’re trying to find out things farther away from everyday life (which might prove practical later) then it’s time to mock and/or start talking about waste of money. That applies also if science goes into territories which they reserve for religion.

  • Marshall Eubanks

    @Jim – Impact on religion ? Probably near nil. (And, given that Mars and the Earth have been passing material back and forth for billions of years, I predict that any Martian life will have a terrestrial analogue.)

    You want an impact on religion, you are talking about finding alien civilizations, and they are not going to be found on Mars. And, even if found, this is not likely to be a fast process.

    Suppose that, say, a 5 billion year old civilization came to call. If they are atheists, that would have a profound effect and, if they are deists, watch out. My guess (FWIW) is however that communication would be so hard it might take centuries to even figure out if they had religion and, if so, what sort. And, note, I set that up so that there was no time delay. Now imagine that we find the same civilization, except that they are, say, 10,000 light years away. Clearly, no matter what sort of religion they may have, it will take a long time for it to have an effect on us. The latter is much more realistic than the former. If there is alien life, it is almost certainly going to have an effect on us more like continental drift than Star Trek.

  • coralline oz

    Pretty sure that Jim means “would the *knowledge* that there’s non-Terrestrial life out there have an effect on religion?”

    My guess is: Kinda-sorta. It’d certainly have an influence on how we see ourselves in the universe, which can’t help but influence religion. How *much* an impact it would have depends on how advanced the life is, whether it’s happily grinding away without us or looking for some sort of savior, /which/ religion we’re talking about, /which/ loonies proclaim that “we knew it all along from C.S. Lewis” and which others claim to hold the True Religion, and all that. And many will call for missionaries to go convert it.

    We’re complicated, and inconsistent, and irrational beings. As a species, that makes us eminently flexible and adaptable; as a swell buncha guys to be around, maybe a little less impressive; as a paragon of morality and a guide to a predictable future… ick.

  • Marshall Eubanks

    MRO comes through with a picture of MSL under the parachute :

  • JimV

    The impact on me is that it seems worth hanging around another year or so to see what we discover, and I can’t say that about a lot of things these days.

    My WA-guess is that any signs of life will be fossils. The environment seems pretty hostile and lacking in energy/nutrients. Also, if some form of life could thrive there, we ought to have seen it by now – you can see algae blooms on the Earth from space. I’ll be very happy to be wrong.

  • Darth Imperius

    Another small victory for the Western proto-Empire! When will the flags be planted and the Red Planet conquered? Surely there is little time before the Eastern proto-Empire claims Mars for itself, leading perhaps to planetary war?

    I must ask Western scientists in all seriousness, what motivates your work? If not for God or country, then surely it is for greater power? For what is knowledge but the key to power? Why then are you not pushing harder for the Conquest of Space and the foundation of Empire? Why is your civilization today so visionless and lacking in direction? Why do you tolerate such weak, foolish and small-minded leaders when there is an entire galaxy to be won? If you’re so smart, why don’t you simply take over and take all the funds you need?

  • Marshall Eubanks

    By the way, with ~40% (140 kg) of the fuel unused, somewhere, some scientist is thinking “they could have flown my instrument and still have had 100 kg of fuel left over !”

  • Benjamin W

    @Jim: Impact on religion? As a religious man myself, I don’t think signs of alien life would have a negative impact. The God Who created life on this earth could very well create alien life elsewhere in the universe.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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