Why are these engineers dropping their new Mars rover from the ceiling? In my last post on Vandi Verma and the state of the "old" Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, I mentioned some of the upgrades that are being installed on the next-generation rover, Curiosity. But I didn't mention one of Curiosity's wildest new features: its landing system. Check it out.

Spirit and Opportunity bounced onto the Martian surface encased in cushioning airbags. Curiosity, however, will be lowered wheels-down from a tether hooked to the upper stage of its spacecraft. The NASA folks call this system a sky crane, which makes it sound like something you might see on your average construction site--if that construction site was, you know, hurtling through an alien sky while urgently firing rockets to slow itself down. But if everything goes smoothly, right before the rover touches down, it will be falling at a gentle rate of about 0.75 meters per second, just like an enormous, 2,000 pound leaf fluttering softly to the surface. (Well, maybe not exactly like that.)

Before trying such a scheme on Mars, engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory have to test it here on Earth--and, of course, post the test to YouTube. Based on the engineers' reactions, I guess it worked. What will this all look like when it happen on Mars? That's on YouTube, too.

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