Mars + Curiosity = Adventures in Science!

Seth Jarvis

The news and images from the Mars Science Laboratory/Curiosity rover are coming so fast that it’s hard to keep up with it all – but trust me, it’s worth the effort.

First and foremost, make sure you bookmark this link:

That’s NASA’s website for posting new images from Curiosity.

In my previous post I mentioned how important it is to have not only a powerful roving laboratory on the surface of Mars, but also powerful cameras on satellites currently orbiting Mars.  The importance of that combination of looking down from a great height while also studying things close-up on the ground is hard to overstate.

Case in point: This “crime scene” photo taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter of the Curiosity landing site.

This image covers an area of not quite two miles in width, and shows where Curiosity, its parachute, heat shield, and SkyCrane landed.


Now let’s zoom in and look at the individual components of the landing system and see how they fared.

First, the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) ”Curiosity” rover itself.

Notice how little the ground around Curiosity has been disturbed.


Because it was so large and heavy, Curiosity couldn’t be “bounced” onto the surface with airbags like previous rovers. It had to use rockets.  But rockets powerful enough to deposit a one-ton car-sized rover would tear up the ground and make the landing site hazardous for the rover, so NASA employed the “Sky Crane” maneuver to have the landing rockets hover about 60 feet above the ground while Curiosity itself was lowered on cables to the ground. That approach worked well, as you can see from the only slightly disturbed dust around Curiosity.

Next let’s have a look at what became of the Sky Crane itself.

Notice how the Sky Crane made a "splash" in the Martian soil.


After it had deposited Curiosity safely on the ground, the cables that lowered Curiosity were cut and the Sky Crane was flown away to crash land far from Curiosity.  The Sky Crane made a mess of Mars about 700 yards from Curiosity.

Now let’s have a look at Curiosity’s parachute and the “backshell” that connected the Sky Crane and Curiosity to the parachute.

Even the lightweight Backshell kicked up a fair bit of Mars dust when it hit the ground.


The Backshell and parachute (for scale, the parachute is about 50 feet in diameter) landed about 670 yards from Curiosity.  The parachute is to the left of Curiosity because the first thing the rocket-powered Skycrane did after separating from the parachute was to maneuver quickly to the right to avoid having the parachute come down on top of the Skycrane as it slowed for the final descent to the surface.

And finally, the poor heat shield.  It protected the whole package during the spacecraft’s initial plunge into Mars’ atmosphere.  During maximum deceleration in the atmosphere, as the vehicle’s speed went from 13,000 mph to about 900 mph, the temperature on the heat shield rose to 3,800 degrees (F).  After it was no longer needed, it was ejected, and crashed onto Mars about a mile from where Curiosity landed.

The heat shield landed almost a mile from Curiosity.


There it is in all its glory – the story of Curiosity’s landing on Mars, made possible by the combination of a daring but wildly successful landing on Mars while a satellite with powerful cameras recorded the whole thing for posterity.

I like to think that a hundred or so years from now that each of these items will be found by human beings, trudging around in spacesuits and driving their own six-wheeled vehicles, and that historical markers and museums will be erected at these sites to commemorate and preserve these hugely significant artifacts that together tell the story of the human exploration of Mars.


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