Getting to Mars is HARD

Seth Jarvis

This coming Sunday, August 5th, at 11:31 PM (MDT), after an eight and one-half month flight through interplanetary space, a nuclear powered six wheel drive robotic rover called “Curiosity” is scheduled to touch-down on the planet Mars.

That’s what is supposed to happen.  That’s the official plan.  But do plans always work out? Is the successful arrival of Curiosity on Mars a foregone conclusion? Not on your life!  Getting to Mars is hard.  Of the 38 total missions to Mars launched from Earth to date, 22 have been failures.

Now to be honest, most of those failures were in the earlier years of attempting to send spacecraft to the Red Planet, and the majority of the early failures involved Mars missions launched by the former USSR.

NASA’s own record is better than the global average. Of NASA’s seventeen attempts to get spacecraft to Mars since the effort began in 1964, twelve (70%) have been successful. Best of all, in the past ten years NASA has achieved a confidence-building record of four-for-four in successfully getting probes to Mars.

Is this recent success a guarantee that come the morning of Monday, August 6th, we’ll all be celebrating a major milestone in the exploration of Mars?  Don’t we wish!

Never before has so large a vehicle been sent to Mars. Curiosity literally weighs a ton and is the size of a car. The top of its camera mast is seven feet above the ground!

Never before have so many ambitious scientific experiments been packaged into a single mission.  Curiosity carries more than ten times the weight of science instruments as any previous Mars rover.

Never before has the landing zone been so small.  Curiosity was launched from a planet traveling around the Sun at 67,000 miles per hour, towards a planet going around the Sun at 55,000 miles per hours, on a trajectory that would require a travel time of 254 days and cover a total distance of more than 350 million miles.

Curiosity had to aim not for where Mars was when it launched on 11/26/11, but for where Mars would be after 254 days of traveling as fast as we know how to send rockets to Mars.

And the target?  Gale Crater, or more specifically, one small elliptical section within Gale Crater measuring only four miles wide by twelve miles long.


Since NASA first released this image, the landing site has been made even smaller!


Gale Crater, relative to NASA's other successful landing sites.

Never before has the landing method been so complex.  And to appreciate just how complex, and clever, and daring this landing will be, you need to watch this video, which NASA calls “Seven Minutes of Terror.” This is simply one of most amazing and inspiring NASA videos you’re likely to ever see, so turn up your speakers, go full-screen as soon as the video starts, and prepare to be amazed.




The odds are very good that come Monday morning August 6th, we at Clark Planetarium will all be doing the happy dance and watching our computers for news and images from Curiosity so we can start incorporating them into our dome theatre astronomy programs and writing about them on our website and Facebook page.

But if for some reason there’s a problem and Curiosity crashes, or mysteriously goes silent, or shoots right past Mars and heads for who-knows-where in space, please remember that getting to Mars is hard, and that you never advance human knowledge by succeeding at difficult tasks and getting everything just right on your first try 100% of the time.  As I’m constantly reminding myself and anyone else who’ll listen, “Thought is borne of failure, and growth only occurs at the edge of your effort.”

The Mars Science Laboratory mission represents the work of thousands of brilliant people who have labored mightily for years to solve countless fiendishly complex problems, all the while working under tight weight, size, power and performance restrictions, tight deadlines and even tighter budgets.  This task is, quite literally, “rocket science,” and regardless of what happens Sunday night we should all stand in awe of the folks who make this effort.

Which gives me an excuse to share with you one of my favorite Mitchell & Webb sketches:


Sunday, August 5th, 2012, 11:31 PM Mountain Daylight Time… keep your fingers crossed!

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