Landing the Mars rover

June 23, 2012 • 7:38 am

I’m putting up three videos about the Mars rover that will land in August.  If you are too harried to watch more than one, watch the first 5-minute video—an amazing testimony to the powers of science, engineering, and the sheer tenacity and keenness of human thought. It shows, with interviews, how they figured out how to land the fourth Mars rover, this one called “Curiosity” (a great name!). Curiosity is scheduled to touch down on the red planet in 43 days.

And here are two videos showing why they’re sending it, and what they hope to find out:

It gives me a shiver up the spine to think that a group of social primates can actually do something like this.

Pictures from Nvate:

h/t: Michael

37 thoughts on “Landing the Mars rover

  1. Hey – don’t those folk at NASA know that in space noone can hear you scream, blow a thruster jet, go woosh, or anything at all?

    1. That was my initial thought too, although the animation seems to start close to the edge of the martian atmosphere, so maybe? After some internet searching it seems that even in space there could be sound very close to the thrusters and separation charges due to the interaction of the molecules associated with those events but any sound would rapidly fade to nothing due to the dispersal of the molecules. I didn’t find anything that was thorough enough to ensure that information isn’t speculative on my part though.

    2. One of my pet peeves is the pet peeve of “no sounds in space” people.

      The physics of a camera observer in most videos aren’t exactly realistic anyway, having non-relativistic space jumps and non-causal time cuts. So why care if the microphone physics is also phony? I don’t get it.

      Yes, those things can be used to illustrate poorly and confusingly. But maybe not, if its purpose is to make a subject engaging. Most people know a vacuum doesn’t transmit sound.

      There are sounds in space though, provided that the density of gas is high enough. The baryonic acoustic oscillations (BAO) of the early universe that shows up in galaxy densities is one such. I believe the Bad Astronomer has an article, where he claims acoustic waves of dense molecular clouds is another. Not that you can hear them with ears or even mikes.

  2. Seriously, this is very cool, though it does look utterly loony and as though it was designed by Gerry Anderson for Thunderbirds. You can follow Curiosity on Twitter at @MarsCuriosity

  3. So many things that must work consecutively, one after another. All I could do during the first video is say, over and over, “It’s going to crash!” Guess I’m a little pessimistic.

      1. I had an opportunity to hear a presentation by a NASA Quality Assurance person and this was brought up. As is usually the case, the media elected to focus on the sound bite and kinda sorta skipped all the detail. I don’t recall the exact details but that was way more complicated than someone screwing up units.
        That said, this does look like a mission dreamed up by a bunch of engineers on LSD..’and then we lower it to the surface with a flying crane! YEAH’. I so hope this thing works cuz if it does, it’s as cool as dinosaurs with lasers.

  4. I have a friend who just moved on to a postdoc; part of his dissertation was on calibrating the ChemCam instrument on Curiosity, and he’s gone on to be involved in the mission.

    (His blog is at Martian Chronicles; though he might be a bit busy in a couple months to report. But he’s got some good archived entries on Mars exploration.)

  5. And they didn’t mention their morning prayer meetings, or where in the Bible they found their guidance and specs for building the thing! After all, the specs for the first Temple and for the ark of Noah are there in great detail – surely the specs for this craft are there, too? — snark!

  6. By the time I watched the live video feed from NASA on the Mars Rover landings I had memorized the descent sequence.

    It was edge-of-the-seat, gripping drama as the mission managers read out the numbers coming from Mars, confirming touchdown, bouncing, rolling and stopping.

    It all worked.

    I am so looking forward to the August landing!

  7. If you are too harried to watch more than one, watch the first 5-minute video—an amazing testimony to the powers of science, engineering, and the sheer tenacity and keenness of human thought.

    Yeah, then you’ll figure out that maybe you aren’t too harried to watch more than one after all. Remarkable animation.

  8. I’m hoping the Mars Orbiter can take a picture of the descent, as it did with the Phoenix lander. (Phil Plait mentioned that was one of the coolest things ever, and I agree.)

  9. lamacher@#5 beat me to it. How paltry are the so called miracles of religion when compared to this kind of stuff?

    It would be really cool if they did find conclusive evidence of life. I believe that Catholic theologians have prepared in advance what they will say should extra-terrestrial life ever be confirmed.

    1. Fictional Catholic theologians have dealt with this in at least two science-fiction novels I have read.

  10. Look at the size of that rover! The landing system is awesome!

    If, like me, you’re a sucker for space exploration, science, feats of engineering and human collaboration, you ought to see the “Carolyn Porco flies us to Saturn” video.

    With wonderful pictures of Saturn and some of the descent on Titan (@zendruid1, #8). Truly awe inspiring.

    AND told by a great and passionate scientist! To quote her from the talk: “a great Jules Verne’s adventure”.

    1. Oh and also:

      @Stonyground, #9:
      “It would be really cool if they did find conclusive evidence of life”

      I forgot to mention the part of the talk about Enceladus and the possibility of life (yes, that far out from the sun!)

  11. I hadn’t realized that the rover has to be launched at a time when Mars is on the opposite side of the Sun from Earth, so that once the rover bursts free of Earth’s gravity, the Sun’s gravity can take over, catch hold of and fling the rover toward Mars. It’s more like a sea voyage than I’d imagined: more like how sailors use the prevailing winds and tides to stay the course and reach the shore.

  12. It’s amazing how much energy and resources it takes to transport this small piece of equipment to Mars. But it’s totally worth it. 🙂

  13. I know I’ve made this comment before, but one of the things I find most inspiring is the international cooperation that went into building Curiosity. It’s the result of work from many countries (including some that are routinely characterized as our opponents): Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Russia, and the USA. Science is truly an international, egalitarian enterprise.

  14. THANK YOU for sharing these videos, Jerry! While all of them are excellent I found the last three words in the first one especially moving.

  15. I have a special place in hell for the people who put in annoying extremely crappy music which drowns out the already dull narration.

  16. Will the MSL be sterile before it leaves earth? Will it stay sterile as it leaves earth’s atmosphere? Can we avoid infecting Mars with our bacteria?

    1. Yes
      Probably Yes
      Probably not in the long term

      P.S. You write as if the MSL is still in its Florida hanger. It lifted off on the nose of an Atlas V rocket back in November last year.

    2. – Most definitely not! Nobody has ever guaranteed that, instead it has been made pretty explicit that it is practically unachievable and going further than they do simply too costly.

      It is known they broke the planetary protection procedure this time. One sterilized drill bit out of 3 was tested without seeking permission using clean room but not sterile handling.

      Also, the system is subjected to what is called ‘cleanliness requirements’ and ‘microbial reduction’ during autoclave. When the method was developed nobody knew archaea and some bacteria extremophiles (I think) can survive autoclave sterilization.

      It hasn’t been checked to my knowledge (NASA uses a lowtemp longtime variant), and maybe that is why it is called microbial reduction under the heading of “sterilization”.

      Notably the RTG power sources are not included in the autoclave, and are attached to the craft through openings into the microbial reduced clamshell a few hours before launch IIRC. During transit cooling lines goes into the clamshell to cool the RTGs, so material is looped through non-sterilized equipment and back.

      – No more spores will be added, no.

      – It is IMHO highly unlikely that non-adapted life can survive on the surface to somehow get down to survivable depths. The UV radiation during the long martian days break down all organics.

  17. I wish to make one further comment.

    Yes, I said I watch the landing broadcast live through NASA TV from JPL (or wherever, I don’t recall) but the human drama was exceptional.

    Here were people who had worked years on this project and knew every second of what was happening and to be part of that, vicariously, was an extraordinary experience.

    Yes, the probe will be dead or alive by the time the team gets the data and that will be either a mountain top experience or a wake.

    Personally, I hope the programmers did a good job and as a former programmer myself I’m sure of that.

    Here’s to Aug 5.

  18. During my one year as a humble intern at NASA (Mountain View, CA) in 1995 I worked down the hall from a large room in which they were testing an earlier rover. The room had both makeups of a lunar and of a Martian landscape. My work had nothing to do with it, though. I was developing a highly terrestial experimental air traffic control and navigation system.

  19. Not to detract – I hope – but raise the tension:

    NASA spilled the beans on the “Red Dragon”, “Ice Dragon” missions that they look at during their last week Mars Exploration meeting.

    If MSL is doing “7 minutes of terror”, using a standard Dragon will be “the ultimate terror”. It can do the same payload haul as the MSL mission Since Dragon/Falcon Heavy has no a chute and isn’t as ballistic, they make it go a long gradual descent.

    Then they dump almost all fuel in a 9 g (IIRC) kick in the heat shield rocket blast a few seconds before hitting ground at supersonic speeds.

    And finish by descending the last 40 meters on heavy throttle, that SpaceX can do.

    Since Dragon/Falcon Heavy is still cheaper while hauling a lot more fuel for the final brake, scientists are eager to do it. A Dragon has lots of space and it is claimed that they can go for larger loads if necessary.

    Eventually they can scale up the Dragon for manned multi-metric ton payloads. Musk may volunteer for “the ultimate terror”.

  20. I recently read Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, and finally appreciate what sending these probes to other worlds really entails. Folks grumble when we lose one due to a poor calculation, and piss on NASA for the failure, but if someone decided to land a paper airplane on the tip of the Empire State building by first launching it in New Delhi with a really big rubber band, having it hitch a ride on the jet-stream then slow down by circling the Statue of Liberty, only to miss it’s target by six inches, I doubt anyone would read them the riot act. But that’s basically what NASA and the JPL does all the time, yet too many people shrug at their successes and hiss at their failures. Lost a rover due to a miscalculation? I can’t even make a six foot basket!

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