Mars Science Laboratory has scheduled the launch of the newest Martian rover, Curiosity, in late 2011. This will be NASA’s fourth voyage to Mars and the largest of any rover sent so far. Its goal is to determine if the planet has, or ever had, environmental conditions suitable for supporting microbial life.

Previous missions to Mars used a primitive landing strategy where the lightweight rovers were encased in airbags and haphazardly bounced off the surface of the planet a number of times before coming to a rest. In order to land the much larger Curiosity more safely and with greater precision, NASA’s scientists have come up with a novel guided entry system.

Did You Know?The first rover sent to Mars in 1997 was a bit bigger than a shoebox; Curiosity is about the size of a Mini Cooper.

The spacecraft consists of four major components: cruise stage, entry aeroshell (backshell plus heatshield),descent stage, and rover. The video shown below begins with the launch vehicle travelling between Earth and Mars.

After dumping the cruise stage, the craft will enter Mars’ atmosphere at an altitude of 125 kilometres and speed of 5800 metres per second. About four minutes later, the parachute deploys and the heatshield separates from the craft. Next, the backshell detaches from the descent stage, retrorockets are fired and the rover is lowered by nylon cords connected to a “sky crane” (or BUD). Once the rover touches down, the connecting cords are cut and the descent stage flies off to crash land out of harm’s way.

Check it out!

Article first published April 20, 2011

Stan Megraw

Stan is a writer/researcher, a PhD graduate of McGill University and was a member of the CurioCity team for several years. As a kid he dreamed of playing hockey in the NHL then becoming an astronaut with NASA. Instead, he ended up as an environmental research scientist. In his spare time Stan enjoys working on DIY projects, cooking and exploring his Irish roots.

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