The time has almost come for NASA’s Curiosity rover to land on Mars – hopefully. The 254 day journey from Earth to Mars is expected to end on Monday, August 6 at 1:31 a.m. EST should it survive the risky entry, descent and landing (EDL) typical of this sort of mission.

The difficult landing has NASA calling it “Seven Minutes of Terror” during which time, hundreds of technical events have to work together with split-second timing.

When Curiosity enters the Red Planet’s atmosphere, it will be traveling at 13,200 mph. Seven minutes later, it should be at rest on Mars’ surface. To relate, it’s like driving 65 mph down the highway and coming to a complete, controlled stop in 2.1 seconds. Not an easy feat!

[click the image below to see a larger view]


The spacecraft carrying Curiosity – the Mars Science Laboratory – will enter the Martian atmosphere, cooking its heat shield to 2,093 degrees Celsius (3,800 degrees Fahrenheit). It will then deploy a parachute. Subsequently, the spacecraft loses the heat shield and slows itself with small rocket engines.

At this point, the descent stage has begun. Next, the back shell with the parachute separates. Here, it is just one mile above the ground and descending at about 180 mph. Landing engines slow the descent to about 2 mph and will remain at this speed until touchdown.

With 66 feet to go until landing, the rover is released from the descent stage and is lowered by the sky crane bridle, which is like a tether. Curiosity’s wheels deploy and the rover is prepared to land. With the rover on the ground, the sky crane section flies away, leaving Curiosity ready for the mission ahead.

If you want to experience the “Seven Minutes of Terror,” own an Xbox 360 and the Kinect motion controller, you’re in luck. NASA and Microsoft have partnered to create the Mars Rover Landing video game. Available for free download from Xbox LIVE, gamers can guide Curiosity through the EDL and get a feel for the intensity and precision required for the rover to safely land on Mars.

On Saturday, July 28, Charles “Chuck” Tatro, mission manager with the Launch Services Program at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, will discuss the upcoming landing. His presentation is at 3 p.m. at the Science On A Sphere station in Our Planet, Our Universe. He’ll conduct a question-and-answer session following his talk.

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