Friday Planetary Science Update

24 05 2013

This is a time lapse video showing Sol 0 – 281 (a Sol is one day on Mars, which is about 40 minutes longer than a day on Earth) from NASA rover Curiosity’s perspective.

Curiosity Makes a Successful Landing!

8 08 2012

On Sunday night PDT, the latest Mars Rover, Curiosity, made a successful landing on the surface of Mars.

Mars Science Laboratory (nicknamed “Curiosity” after a suggestion taken from schoolchildren in a national contest) is the most advanced vehicle ever deposited on a foreign celestial body in the history of our species. 

It is twice as long as the previous pair of rovers, the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity, and five times as heavy. It has ten times the mass of science instruments.

Probably as exciting as anything else is the way that MSL landed on Mars. After hurtling through interplanetary space for 8 1/2 months, it entered the relatively thin Martian atmosphere, bleeding off a speed of roughly 3.6 miles per second down to 1,500 feet per second before deploying its parachute.

After the chute deployed, the heat shield fell away (which was captured in an amazing video) and the craft descended until it reached an altitude of about one mile, where it let go of the parachute and backshell, and began to freefall before its rocket motors kicked in to slow the descent.


Finally, just above the surface, the rover itself was lowered down from the “sky crane”, the jetpack descent vehicle, as the sky crane hovered in a stationary position. Once it touched down, the rover fired pyrotechnics which severed the cables to the sky crane and allowed it to fly off and crash land away from the rover.

Of course, all of this happened automatically within a very precise window.  All steps were executed perfectly and the rover later sent back initial images that let JPL know that all was well.


left image with the transparent dust cover on the lens, right image without


check out that shadow!

Two satellites currently orbit Mars – Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.  Each has the capability of receiving signals from the rover and relaying them back to Earth. 

MRO also took a phenomenal image of the landing, including the inflated parachute with the spacecraft dangling below:


Later it took this amazing shot of the landing area including all constituent components:


The Curiosity rover is in the center of the image. To the right, approximately 4,900 feet (1,500 meters) away, lies the heat shield, which protected the rover from 3,800-degree-Fahrenheit (about 2,100 degrees Celsius) temperatures encountered during its fiery descent. On the lower left, about 2,020 feet (615 meters) away, are the parachute and back shell. The parachute has a constructed diameter of 71 feet (almost 21.5 meters) and an inflated diameter of 51 feet (nearly 16 meters). The back shell remains connected to the chute via 80 suspension lines that are 165 feet (50 meters) long. To the upper-left, approximately 2,100 feet (650 meters) away from the rover, is a discoloration of the Mars surface consistent with what would have resulted when the rocket-powered Sky Crane impacted the surface.

Here’s the heat shield, the first part to hit the surface:


Parachute and backshell:


And the crash-landed sky crane jetpack:


We are very much looking forward to the science that Curiosity will begin returning in the coming years!

While we’re in the topic of Mars rovers, let’s not forget that one of the last rovers, Opportunity (which landed on Mars in January if 2004) is still functional and sending back images and scientific measurements a full 8 years hence!

Here’s a great panorama that Opportunity recently sent back: