By the time the robotic Mars laboratory dubbed Curiosity streaks into the thin Martian atmosphere at hypersonic speed tonight, the spacecraft will be in charge of its own seven-minute final approach to the surface of the Red Planet.
With a 14-minute delay in the time it takes for radio waves from Earth to reach Mars 154 million miles away, NASA engineers will already have given Curiosity the last commands of its eight-month voyage through space.
At that point, the mission control team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) near Los Angeles will have little more to do than anxiously track the spacecraft’s progress – and wait.
Curiosity’s fate will then hinge on the performance of its pre-programmed directions, a new self-guided flight system and a complex, seemingly far-fetched landing sequence that includes a giant parachute and a never-before-used, jet-powered “sky crane” that must descend to the right spot over the planet, lower Curiosity to the ground on a tether, cut the cords and fly away…
Curiosity, billed as the first full-fledged analytical laboratory on wheels ever sent to another world, is designed primarily to search for evidence that Mars may have once harbored conditions favorable to microbial life…
If all goes as planned, NASA’s team expects to receive a radio signal by just after 10:30 p.m. Pacific time confirming that Curiosity has touched down safely in its target zone near the foot of a towering mountain on the floor of a vast impact crater named Gale Crater.
If no landing signal comes, it could take hours or days for scientists to learn if radio communications with the rover were merely disrupted or that it crashed or burned up during descent.
“It looks a little crazy, but I promise you it’s the least crazy of the methods you could use to land a rover the size of Curiosity on Mars, and we’ve become quite fond of it,” Steltzner told reporters at a JPL briefing on Thursday.
RTFA for details. Join science and space fans around the world and be ready to celebrate a safe landing.