NASA's Mars rover nearing '7 minutes of terror'

Last Updated: Sat, Jul 28, 2012 10:00 hrs

A spacecraft carrying a rover to investigate the surface of Mars will be hitting the planet's upper atmosphere at a speed of 13,200mph.

Mars Science Laboratory is readied for its mission in the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at Kennedy Space Centre, Florida.

The project is an exciting piece of work for the scientists involved, and the details are fascinating, even to the uninitiated.

NASA's Mars Science Laboratory launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida on November 26, 2011. The rover was launched from atop an Atlas 5 rocket from launch pad 41 at Cape Canaveral.

NASA is making final preparations for the dramatic landing on Mars of its most sophisticated-ever planetary explorer.

The car-sized Curiosity rover is on course to land within a 12-mile target zone in the Gale Crater, where it will begin searching for evidence that the planet was once able to support life.

The touchdown is scheduled for 6:31am on August 6.

In order to reach the surface safely, NASA has devised a landing procedure that could have come from a sci-fi movie.

The space agency describes the manoeuvre as "Curiosity's seven minutes of terror".

"Sometimes when we look at it, it looks crazy," Sky News quoted engineer Adam Steltzner as saying.

After hitting the upper atmosphere of Mars, it will then rapidly lose speed with a series of steep S-curves, similar to those used by the Shuttle.

At an altitude of seven miles, still travelling at 1,000mph, it will deploy the strongest parachute ever made to slow it further.

One mile above the ground, explosive bolts will jettison the parachute and six retrorockets will slow the craft to just 1.7mph.

Hovering 20m above the planet a "sky crane" will then lower Curiosity to the surface on three nylon cords.

Mission manager Pete Theisinger said the descent was a massive challenge.

"For the landing to succeed hundreds of events will need to go right, many with split-second timing, and all controlled autonomously by the spacecraft," Steltzner said.

"We expect to get Curiosity safely on to the ground, but there is no guarantee. The risks are real," he added. (ANI)

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