Mars | Science | Space | Video

Curiosity's Seven Minutes of Terror: VIDEO

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The Mars rover Curiosity will touch down tomorrow morning. It is the size of a big sedan, and it has been traveling through the near-vacuum of intrastellar space for eight months. If it lands safely, it will probe the rocks and dirt in and around Gale Crater in the hope of finally establishing whether Mars was ever a suitable environment for life. It will be a magnificent achievement; one all of humanity will be able to boast about for millenia.

But -- have you ever tried landing a sedan-sized rover on a planet that resides at an average of 225 million kilometers from Earth? On a planet with an atmosphere so thin that parachutes won't be sufficient to slow its descent? It's not easy. Ian Sample, of The Guardian, has written an excellent explanation of the process by which NASA scientists intend to get Curiosity aground -- an improbable, crazy-sounding sequence of mechanical feats which the involved scientists have begun calling "Seven Minutes of Terror." And NASA has produced a sharp, graphics-heavy video to explain the same thing. Harrowing stuff! Watch AFTER THE JUMP ...


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  1. 'planet that resides at an average of 225 kilometers from Earth'

    um... i think you mean 225 MILLION kilometers from earth... :)

    Posted by: jmk | Aug 5, 2012 9:08:17 AM

  2. I am so excited, I hope everything goes as planned!

    Posted by: WayneMPLS | Aug 5, 2012 9:10:23 AM

  3. Fingers crossed that they find evidence of life on Mars.

    Posted by: Tracy | Aug 5, 2012 9:36:55 AM

  4. Great clip;nicely explained and fun to watch.

    These teams of scientist and their cohorts get little publicity for their great achievements, yet contestants on big brother jersey shore are household names. F'ed up.

    Posted by: ratbastard | Aug 5, 2012 9:51:09 AM

  5. The space between the planets is "interplanetary," not "intrastellar" (space between stars)

    Posted by: Manny Espinola | Aug 5, 2012 10:30:26 AM

  6. Manny:

    Aha! Thought somebody would write that. I think you misread -- I wrote "intra," not "inter." I realized six or seven months ago that even though "interstellar" is a common word, "intrastellar" isn't, and that bugged me. So I vowed to use it every chance I got.

    Some scientists use the term "intrastellar" to refer to the space *inside* stars, but I think that's bad usage. Intrastellar space should begin at exactly the spot where interstellar space ends, and interstellar space definitely ends either at the periphery of the solar wind or else at the Oort Cloud. By the quirky laws of English, having a space that's somehow neither inter- nor intrastellar would render that space "a-stellar" or "non-stellar," both of which sound wrong.

    Thanks for reading!
    - BKT

    Posted by: Brandon K. Thorp | Aug 5, 2012 10:48:28 AM

  7. The suspense is freaking killing me!

    Posted by: Manny Espinola | Aug 5, 2012 11:10:10 AM

  8. There are so many stages - I counted five (?) distinct ones. Murphy's Law keeps buzzing over my head! Why couldn't they have used the balloon-bounce method? It worked before.

    Posted by: Manny Espinola | Aug 5, 2012 11:15:03 AM

  9. I heard on NPR, from the girl who named the rover, that Curiosity is the size of a mini cooper, and not a large sedan.... which is the correct info?

    Posted by: V-8 | Aug 5, 2012 11:31:40 AM

  10. @Tracy
    That's not what Curiosity is about and it's not equipped for biological experiments. This is a geology mission to determine the possibility of life in the past, for example by investigating if certain stone formations were created by flowing water. There is what looks like an outflow of a river near its landing site and that will be the first destination.

    Mini Cooper would be correct. It's 3 meters long and weighs 900 kg.

    Posted by: Steve | Aug 5, 2012 12:16:51 PM

  11. I think NASA have been watching too many Christopher Nolan trailers.

    Super interesting though.

    Posted by: PDB | Aug 5, 2012 12:22:41 PM

  12. I agree with ratbastard.

    Posted by: melvin | Aug 5, 2012 12:30:37 PM

  13. They can't use the balloon bounce landing method because Curiosity weighs in at over 2,000 pounds, while the previous rovers weighed only a few pounds each. In other words, the balloon needed for Curiosity would have to be roughly one thousand times larger and would be impossible, by far, to fit into any of our present launch vehicles. Also, the weight of the balloon used with the previous rovers is several hundred times the weight of the rovers themselves, meaning that a balloon for Curiosity would weigh in at about 2,500 tons making launch impossible once again with any of our present launch vehicles.

    Posted by: StarGem | Aug 5, 2012 12:56:20 PM

  14. "Intrastellar"? Okay, then.

    I fear this is all so complicated the chances of success are essentially nil. Set your expectations on very, very low.

    The airbag idea, which is brilliant and has worked well three times, lost out because NASA has competing teams of engineers that believe in different approaches to things. This was the chance for the sky-crane crew to prove their idea will work. It's all completely political and essentially insane. Airbags would have worked well again, even if they needed to augment the approach. The extra size and weight of the larger shell, parachute, and sky-crane exceeds that of the folded up airbag they would have used instead. Also, keep in mind that a lot of design decisions are made when NASA gets funding votes in Congress because congressmen determine who the general contractors are going to be. This isn't always for the best.

    Posted by: anon | Aug 5, 2012 2:44:15 PM

  15. Fingers crossed that they find what there is to find.

    Posted by: Eric26 | Aug 5, 2012 9:46:54 PM

  16. Why don't they ask the Vulcans for help?

    Posted by: Sargon Bighorn | Aug 5, 2012 10:22:04 PM

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