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Mission to Mars: Anticipating NASA Rover ‘Curiosity’ Touchdown

August 3, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
NASA will soon attempt to land the rover Curiosity on the surface of Mars. If all goes as planned, Curiosity will enter the Martian atmosphere, slowing its descent by releasing a parachute, and lower to the surface on a tether with the help of a 'sky crane.' Miles O'Brien previews the anticipated rover landing on the Red Planet.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And next: a mission to Mars filled with high-stakes challenges. Among them, NASA’s new rover will have to successfully execute a very complicated landing procedure early Monday morning, or else.

NewsHour science correspondent Miles O’Brien previews what’s ahead.

MAN: And liftoff of the Atlas 5.

MILES O’BRIEN: They are the most accomplished and intrepid explorers of Mars. Yet, as they home in on the Red Planet with their biggest, most complex, most expensive mission ever, they are running themselves through brutally tricky simulations and losing a lot of sleep.

ADAM STELTZNER, NASA: So I have this terrible experience where I will awaken and go down the list of all the things that I could worry about. It’s a very long list.

MILES O’BRIEN: For engineer Adam Steltzner and the other Mars mavens at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., it is a $2.5 billion all-in bet on a safe arrival on Mars.

MAN: It is the result of reasoned engineering thought.

MILES O’BRIEN: The entry, descent and landing is known as seven minutes of terror. And a NASA video describing the tense sequence has gone viral on the Web.

MAN: When we first get word that we’ve touched the top of the atmosphere, the vehicle has been alive, or dead, on the surface for at least seven minutes.

MILES O’BRIEN: Gold medal or smoking crater? Not much in between.

ADAM STELTZNER: There’s an awful lot riding on it. And I think the team thinks that they have done everything that we can. I know I believe that we have done everything that we can. And at that point, it’s in sort of the hands of fate.

MILES O’BRIEN: The Mars Science Laboratory named Curiosity by a contest-winning sixth-grader is a curious craft, indeed. It is designed to see if Mars was ever a habitable place.

JOHN GROTZINGER, NASA: So what we have got here is the model of Curiosity that we will use for the entire mission. And whenever we want to do something new on Mars, we do it here first in the test bed.

MILES O’BRIEN: Right.

MILES O’BRIEN: Project scientist John Grotzinger gave me the new rover salesman spiel on a carbon-copy Curiosity used to practice, test and troubleshoot.

Weighing a ton, powered by plutonium, Curiosity is the size of a small car, much bigger and much more capable than its plucky predecessors, golf-cart size Spirit and Opportunity, which arrived on Mars in 2004 and found tons of evidence the planet was once warm and wet.

JOHN GROTZINGER: That’s the calibration target for the ChemCam, instrument, the laser.

MILES O’BRIEN: Where is the laser, by the way? Is it…

JOHN GROTZINGER: You can’t see it. It is facing down on the deck of the rover.

MILES O’BRIEN: Curiosity will take the scientific sleuthing for life past or present to a whole new level with an unprecedented array of experimental capability.

JOHN GROTZINGER: We have 17 cameras. So we’re going to be getting a lot of pictures. And that’s a lot of data volume to come back.

MILES O’BRIEN: There are 10 scientific instruments on board the Mars Science Lab. The rover is designed to sample rocks as far as seven meters, or 23 feet, away. A laser will aim to create a small cloud of plasma that can be analyzed by a spectrometer.

Curiosity will drive over to the most interesting rocks and get to work.

JOHN GROTZINGER: In front of the rover is the arm. And the arm works just like ours. And so what this does is, it gives us the same five degrees of freedom that ours have. It goes like this up, up and down like this. Then the elbow can come out.

MILES O’BRIEN: Right.

JOHN GROTZINGER: And then we have a wrist that rotates around. And so it works exactly how our arm works.

MILES O’BRIEN: An onboard drill is designed to grind and jackhammer out samples that Curiosity will then study with a suite of spectrometers, an X-ray diffraction device, even an onboard oven designed to bake gases out of the rock and soil that could be telltale signs of organic compounds, the building blocks of life. Think of it as a roving, robotic geologist and chemist.

JOHN GROTZINGER: The equipment that you would have would normally fill a room of this size on Earth.

MILES O’BRIEN: Capable and compact as Curiosity is, scientists here are quick to say it is not a life detector.

ASHWIN VASAVADA, NASA: It’s not like we’re blind to detecting life. Want to make that clear. But that’s not purpose of the mission and that’s not how we designed the scientific experiments to work.

MILES O’BRIEN: Ashwin Vasavada is the deputy project scientist for the Mars Science Lab. He reminds us, if there was life on Mars, it was likely three billion years ago and microscopic. Even finding evidence of life that small and that old on Earth can be a huge challenge.

ASHWIN VASAVADA: And you can get tricked by natural processes that mimic biological processes. And we have learned that the hard way.

MILES O’BRIEN: NASA twin Viking landers which arrived on the Red Planet in 1976 did swing for the scientific fences, but struck out, finding no smoking gun proof of Martian life past or present.

Curiosity is headed to a much more scientifically interesting place than the Viking sites. Gale Crater, created by an asteroid impact billions of years ago, sits in the shadow of an 18,000-foot-high mountain. Layer upon layer of sediment deposits offers a rich geological history book for Curiosity’s reading pleasure.

Rob Manning is the rover’s chief engineer.

ROB MANNING, NASA: Yes, we’re landing at the part — the part of the book that is the first pages, the earliest part. And as we go higher and higher up the edge of this mountain, we will be able to look more recent in time.

And so we will sample through the layers of time and see how the environment, how the environment of Mars, the atmosphere, the water conditions, the just overall chemical conditions were for — possible for life.

MILES O’BRIEN: But, first, they have to arrive alive, and that is no small task.

Curiosity is too big and heavy to bounce on to the surface, as Spirit and Opportunity did. The air bag material is just not strong enough. So the wizards here devised and tested an audacious entry, descent and landing scheme that is part Transformer, part Rube Goldberg.

MILES O’BRIEN: How many things have to go right?

ADAM STELTZNER: A tremendous number. We have 79 different pyro devices that have to go correctly, that all have to function.

MILES O’BRIEN: All 79 have to fire?

ADAM STELTZNER: All 79 have to fire. If one of them doesn’t, game over.

MILES O’BRIEN: If all goes as planned, the craft will enter the wispy Martian atmosphere at more than 13,000 miles an hour. Thrusters will fire to slow it down and guide it towards the bullseye. A supersonic parachute deploys. The heat shield separates and drops away.

A landing radar will measure altitude and speed. The back shell separates, and then eight rocket engines start firing. Then a sky crane will lower the rover softly to the ground, protecting it from rocket thrust and debris.

ADAM STELTZNER: We think it’s dandy. It looks crazy. We get that. It looks that way to us at times. But we really think the world of that landing system. It solves every problem that we have ever had with previous landing systems.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

MILES O’BRIEN: It will be a thrill of victory or agony of defeat moment. The overall success rate for missions to Mars is only about one in three.

But here at JPL, they have gone 13 for 18. That’s a .720 batting average in the Red Planet league. Even so, this time, the nerves are ratcheted higher, along with the stakes. Facing budget pressure from the White House, NASA has reduced funding for Mars missions and pulled out of plans to partner with the European Space Agency to stage an elaborate series of missions to Mars to bring a rock sample back to Earth, much to the dismay of the Mars science community.

Jim Bell is president of the Planetary Society and also on the Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity imaging teams.

JIM BELL, Planetary Society: It’s frustrating to try and understand why the administration or Congress would want to stop what so many Americans are incredibly proud of and what has been so successful.

MILES O’BRIEN: One of their big allies is Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff, who represents the California district that is home to the Jet Propulsion Lab.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-Calif.): If we step back from Mars now, at a time when we are tantalizingly close to finding the building blocks of life on Mars, it may be decades before we go back.

MILES O’BRIEN: Facing the bleak funding outlook, NASA has gone back to the Mars drawing board. John Grunsfeld is the associate administrator for science.

JOHN GRUNSFELD, NASA: We’re redesigning the Mars program, as we did in the early 2000s that led to Spirit, Opportunity and Mars Science Laboratory. And so, I think we are still on the path to Mars sample return. We just have to find a way to do it on a pace and with the right series of missions that are affordable within our budget.

MILES O’BRIEN: Easier said than done. NASA is currently caught between a Mars rock and a hard place, unable to sustain a space station, develop a new giant rocket and keep the big, complicated robotic missions flying.

Here at the nexus of NASA robotic exploration endeavor, the fear is a smoking crater means the end of a grand glorious adventure.

Is that the end of going to the Mars? Is that what the thinking is?

ADAM STELTZNER: That’s the worry.

MILES O’BRIEN: Geez.

ADAM STELTZNER: You know?

MILES O’BRIEN: Yes.

ADAM STELTZNER: We have put a lot of investment into this, a lot of science development, a lot of engineering development.

MILES O’BRIEN: Yes.

ADAM STELTZNER: And if it doesn’t go well, we have got to ask ourselves, are we ready, are we brave enough to keep going, to keep trying?

MILES O’BRIEN: But if it does go well and Curiosity finds a tantalizing clue to the ultimate cosmic puzzle, there is hope here the funding will flow again, just as water once did on Mars.

So, even if the seven minutes of terror pan out with a healthy Mars rover, the team here still has another steep mountain to climb.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, we mention that the landing happens early Monday. And we do mean early. Word of whether Curiosity landed successfully is expected to reach Earth around 1:30 a.m. Eastern time. If you are still up or getting up, we will be up, too, some of us anyway, covering it all online.