A Year on Mars and Seven Minutes of Terror


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On Tuesday August 6th, NASA officials on Earth will join crew members aboard the International Space Station to celebrate the first year since the rover Curiosity set down on Martian soil.  The event will be open to the public in Washington, DC, broadcast between noon and 1:30 p.m. on NASA Television and streamed live on the agency’s website. The year on Mars, however, was preceded by “seven minutes of terror.”

 Media and the public will hear highlights of the Mars Science Laboratory’s first year of investigations and be informed of upcoming NASA missions to the red planet via robots.  They will also be able to converse with astronauts that are conducting experiments in space leading to human exploration of Mars in the 2030 decade.

 NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission brought Curiosity to the surface of Mars on Aug. 6, 2012, about a mile from the center of a 12-mile target area. The mission is planned to last 23 months.  Within the first eight months of its efforts, Curiosity found evidence of an environment in the past suitable for supporting microbial life.

Curiosity carries ten instruments, among them two rectangular “eyes” One is an imaging camera with various filters and focal lengths.  The other is a circular camera that can fire a laser turning rock into vapor, reminiscent of the cycloptic robot in “The Day the Earth Stood Still” whose slit eye could incinerate tanks and humans. Another camera analyzes the images from blasted area to ascertain its composition.

Curiosity weighs about a ton and is slightly larger than a car.  It measures ten feet long by seven feet tall, and looks like a dune buggy.  It is powered by a small plutonium-fueled electrical generator.

After being launched on November 26, 2011, Curiosity traveled 350 million miles for eight and one-half months hitched to an interplanetary spacecraft, and tucked inside a protective aeroshell.

The ship entered the Martian atmosphere 2,188 miles above the center of the planet in a burst of fire, moving at 13,200 miles per hour.   The aeroshell acted as a heat shield for the space lab. The spacecraft shed its own outermost shell so that it could activate its built-in radar system and determine altitude and velocity. It leveraged the friction of its passage through the atmosphere to slow itself down and engage its steering.

The period between the time the ship bearing Curiosity was 81 miles above the landing site until it touched down on Mars was described as “seven minutes of terror,” because the spacecraft had to decelerate from 13,200 m.p.h. to a stationary state.  The margin of error was zero. If the craft didn’t decelerate enough or too much, it would crash into the Martian surface. In 1999, NASA lost a Mars orbiter due to confused measurements between metric and English systems.

To help Curiosity make a gentle landing, the spacecraft deployed a parachute more than 165 feet long and 51 feet across, lashed to the craft by 80 suspension lines.

NASA officials said that the landing was flawless and the ten instruments aboard were perfectly operational.

Curiosity landed at the Gale Crater, an impact crater measuring over 95 miles in diameter.  It was formed between 3.5 and 3.8 billion years ago and was chosen as Curiosity’s destination because scientists believe that the sediment in the crater is likely to contain evidence that there was once a habitable environment on Mars.   The central mound of the crater, Aeolis Mons, or “Mt. Sharp,” has a series of layered rock deposits that could be rich source of data about the Martian surface and about how the Martian environment changed over time. Mt. Sharp is comparable in height to some of the tallest mountains on Earth.

Since Mars has no plate tectonics, its layers are flat and not disrupted as on Earth. That means that Mount Sharp was formed in a different way than mountains were created on terra.

In order to create life, there must be liquid water and the building blocks for life, which include organics.  If Mars does have liquid water, it would be deep below the surface.  There is evidence that Mars had a warm and wet period in the first billion years of its history.

Subsequent missions utilizing more advanced technology must be employed to do life detection.

That seven minutes of terror led to a year of exploration for Curiosity that will continue for almost another year.


By:  Tom Ukinski

Sources:   NASA  The Atlantic

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