Seven minutes of terror.
It sounds like a theme park attraction you’d find at Walt Disney World or Universal Studios, maybe a distant cousin to The Twilight Zone: Tower Of Terror. But this is no thrill ride: it’s the fate of NASA’s Mars-bound Curiosity rover when it enters the Red Planet’s tumultous atmosphere on August 5, 2012.
It’s all about the landing. While other rovers have landed successfully on Mars using protective airbags, the overall size and complexity of Curiosity calls for something a bit more complicated. That is, (terrible oversimplification incoming) a heat shield, a parachute, some rockets and a tether.
In fact, the entire process seems so “crazy” (their words, not mine) that last month NASA released a video titled Challenges of Getting to Mars: Curiosity’s Seven Minutes Of Terror, which outlines their rover’s incredible, and hopefully successful, descent in vivid computer animation.
According to the video, from the moment Curiosity enters the Martian atmosphere, it has seven minutes to get from 13,000 miles an hour to zero.
“The top of the atmosphere down to the surface, it takes us seven minutes,” says EDL (entry, descent and landing) engineer Adam Steltzner. “It takes fourteen minutes or so for the signal from the spacecraft to make it to Earth…So, when we first get word that we’ve touched the top of the atmosphere, the vehicle has been alive, or dead, on the surface, for at least seven minutes.”
But there’s more to this mission than the potential for a Mars rover to eat dust — if Curiosity lands successfully, it’ll hopefully go on to provide information about the existence of “life” on Mars, past or present.