On Monday, August 6 at 1:30 am Eastern Time in the US, the Curiosity rover will land on Mars. The gravitational field on Mars being roughly twice that of the Moon, its atmosphere being so thin, and Curiosity being so big, all posed immense challenges to the scientists and engineers who had to figure out how to gently drop the vehicle onto the surface. It does not help that Mars is so far away that there will be a time lag of 14 minutes for communications to get from Earth to the spacecraft and vice versa, meaning that no adjustments can be made from Earth once the descent begins.
In order to do achieve their goal, they have come up with a scheme so elaborate and daring that it simply takes your breath away. The figure below outlines the separate stages involved, the last and most audacious portion lasting about seven minutes.
This clip of an animation of the expected plan, interspersed with explanations by the scientists and engineers of why they had to do the various things, is highly informative.
A lot of things can go wrong and I am certain that all the people involved have not been able to sleep for days worrying about every little thing. But that’s how science at the frontiers is, full of carefully calculated risks.
Even if disaster strikes and the rover does not survive the landing, I salute the people behind this bold plan.