Will Curiosity Kill the Naysayers?

By Steve Robbins

As you read this editorial, either NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover will have landed on the surface of Mars or, as many naysayers have predicted, it will have crashed. Call me a hopeless romantic, but as I write this in late July, my money is on an amazing landing and a lifespan of successful discoveries emanating from this incredible scientific laboratory designed to measure everything from geology to bio-signatures past life has left behind.

One thing is for sure, just like the moon landing back in the ’60s, I will be glued to the television (or maybe my iPad) as Curiosity makes its approach and landing on the surface of Mars. When mankind landed on the moon, all we had was an audio feed. I was in high school and watched the landing from a desk in a classroom. This robotic landing of the Mars Scientific Laboratory promises to be more dramatic. We will be watching the decent from the Mars Descent Imager (MARDI), providing us with an astronaut’s view in hi-res at five frames per second, in real time. The landing process is complicated. Many have called it “seven minutes of absolute terror.”

Simulation Gets Real
Last year, I was invited to a Siemens simulation event at the Joe Gibbs NASCAR Racing Facility in Charlotte, NC, where I met one of the senior engineers from JPL who had simulated the Curiosity landing. It was an impressive simulation, and was the basis for an article we ran in DE’s February 2012 issue. During our conversation, I asked why JPL designed such a complicated landing sequence. Why not just use the previous method, an airbag, which is much simpler and proven. As it turns out, the Curiosity is too large and heavy for an airbag landing, so new technology was needed.

The larger size allows for more instrumentation. We have all been enthralled with the Opportunity and Spirit rovers, but Curiosity is the size of a Volkswagen. It carries an onboard spectrograph that can fire a laser from a distance and analyze rocks, soils, and pebbles for chemical elements, including trace elements and ice. The robot is equipped with four different spectrometers.

It also carries a chemical analysis laboratory that can detect compounds of the element carbon, including methane, which are key indicators of the possibility of past life. Curiosity also has radiation, environmental, and atmospheric sensors on board. These are able to record weather and environmental conditions that have not been available before.

The technology behind the Mars Space Laboratory will not only be useful for future missions to Mars and other celestial bodies, but, like many of NASA’s other innovative technologies, they will be available for commercialization.

Amazing Engineering
I watched the video of the Curiosity simulation a year ago, and I will be watching the real thing on August 5.

As the spacecraft approaches the planet, it will position itself for entry into the Martian atmosphere, firing positioning rockets. The ablative heat shield will reach temperatures of more than 2,700ºF, and then its parachute will deploy at supersonic speeds. It will eject its heat shield and parachute just before the decent stage rockets fire and then hover over the surface of the red planet. Finally, the rover will be lowered on cables to Mars as the descent vehicle flies away.

I plan on being amazed. That’s what I love about this job, working with engineers who change our lives. We should all applaud the dedicated individuals who have brought the Mars Curiosity Rover to realization.

Steve Robbins is the CEO of Level 5 Communications and executive editor of DE. Send comments about this subject to de-editors@digitaleng.news.

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