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Risky business: ‘7 minutes of terror’ await new Mars rover

By Mark K. Matthews, The Orlando Sentinel –

WASHINGTON — Space missions are never easy, but what NASA plans to do on Mars early Monday morning is bold even by agency standards.

At about 1:10 a.m., a spacecraft carrying an SUV-sized rover is scheduled to plunge 81 miles through the Martian atmosphere and execute a complex landing sequence that NASA officials have dubbed “seven minutes of terror.”

If it survives, the Curiosity rover — which cost $2.5 billion to build and launch — will investigate whether the Red Planet ever could have supported life. The plutonium-powered vehicle is equipped with everything from a robotic arm and cameras to a laser and an onboard laboratory to heat and analyze rock samples.

But even NASA officials admit the landing is a gamble.

“The Curiosity landing is the hardest NASA robotic mission ever attempted in the history of exploration of Mars — or any of our robotic exploration (missions),” said John Grunsfeld, head of NASA’s science directorate. “This is risky business.”

It starts when the landing craft hits the top of the Martian atmosphere at speeds approaching 13,200 mph. As the ever-thickening atmosphere slows the spacecraft’s speed during the next four minutes, the temperature of its 15-foot-wide heat shield will soar as high as 3,800 degrees Fahrenheit.

When its speed drops to 900 mph — about seven miles above the surface — the spacecraft will pop a 51-foot-wide parachute and ditch the heat shield so instruments on its underside can guide the spacecraft closer.

That’s the (relatively) simple part.

Even with the parachute deployed, the landing craft still will be traveling too fast. So, with a mile to go, it will jettison the parachute and transform into a hovercraft. Eight small “retrorockets” will slow its descent to 2 mph and then — at about 66 feet above the planet’s surface — it will attempt the trickiest step.

Because the retrorockets risk stirring up a dust storm — blinding the rover’s instruments — the hovercraft will use nylon cords to gently lower the rover to the surface, in what’s being called a sky-crane maneuver. The hovercraft will then fly off and eventually crash on the Martian surface.

If it survives, Curiosity will come to rest at about 1:17 a.m. Monday morning and relay word to the Mars Odyssey orbiter passing overhead. But it will be 14 long minutes before the first signal of success — or failure — reaches mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

“Is it crazy? Not so much once you get comfortable and you understand it. It’s not a crazy concept. It works,” said Doug McCuistion, director of NASA’s Mars exploration program.

Though complicated, the ulcer-inducing landing isn’t without reason.

The 1-ton rover is big — about 10 feet long and 9 feet wide — too big to be encased in air bags and bounced on to the Martian surface, the technique used in 2004 to land two smaller rovers. The larger size is necessary to pack on more instruments.

“We have made great strides in the potential science we can do,” McCuistion said.

Ten different instruments, from cameras to a radiation detector, will help Curiosity gather information about Mars’ environment, specifically clues on whether it is, or ever was, favorable for microbial life.

Though the rover isn’t designed to find life itself — alive or fossilized — it can test for carbon-based materials considered biologically essential for life to exist. A 7-foot robotic arm will collect soil and rock samples. An onboard minilab will analyze the samples’ chemical makeup — including whether the material contains carbon-based compounds such as methane.

“The Curiosity rover has the potential to discover the building blocks of life on Mars,” Grunsfeld said.

The rover also is equipped with a laser that can zap targets up to 23 feet away, another tool to learn more about the chemistry of the Red Planet. After the laser vaporizes a rock or patch of soil, the resulting gas can be studied for clues about the chemicals inside.

To maximize their chances of finding something interesting, NASA scientists have chosen to land inside a 96-mile crater near Mars’ equator.

Gale Crater, named after an Australian astronomer, is layered like a cake and can provide insight into 3 billion years of geological history. Because it’s one of the lowest points on Mars, there’s also the possibility that the water that scientists have proved once existed there may have pooled at the bottom of the crater — important because NASA’s long-standing search for extraterrestrial life revolves around the vital liquid.

“Water flows downhill, and that’s where we’re going,” said Curiosity project scientist John Grotzinger, a geology professor at the California Institute of Technology.

Powered by a nuclear battery, the rover can travel at a maximum speed of about one-tenth of a mile per hour to explore the crater and the foothills of a 3-mile-high mountain, dubbed Mount Sharp, inside it.

NASA’s choice of Gale Crater was enabled by the precision afforded by its complicated descent, which is designed to drop the rover inside a landing zone roughly 12 miles by 16 miles.

But there’s no guarantee of success. Of about three dozen missions sent to Mars since 1960, fewer than half have succeeded.

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Ave it, NASA! Make it count. American Exceptionalism brought to you by a government program. Private enterprise cannot do everything.

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