The U.S. space agency is preparing for its newest Mars rover, “Curiosity,” to touch down on the Red Planet Monday. The rover’s entry and descent will be nerve-wracking for NASA engineers, compounded by a 14-minute delay as the rover’s signals travel to Earth from Mars. If successful, “Curiosity” will be the sixth NASA spacecraft to land on the Red Planet.
Curiosity is the centerpiece of the $2.5 billion Mars science laboratory spacecraft, launched in November aboard an Atlas V rocket.
It’s traveled some 560 million kilometers (347 million miles) toward its destination, the Red Planet.
At 2.8 meters long, the Mini Cooper-sized rover is much bigger than its rover predecessors, “Spirit,” “Opportunity” and “Sojourner.” A nuclear battery will enable “Curiosity” to operate year-round and farther from the equator than would be possible with only solar power.
”Curiosity” is a Mars scientist’s dream machine, said Ashwin Vasavada , ahead of its launch. “This rover is not only the most technically capable rover ever sent to another planet, but it’s actually the most capable scientific explorer we’ve ever sent out,” he said.
“Curiosity” will be traveling at about 20,000 kph (12,400 mph) when it hits the Martian atmosphere. It will have only seven minutes to reduce its speed for a soft landing. NASA engineers will not be able to control or even witness the events in real time. They call this period seven minutes of terror.
Ideally, after a parachute deploys, engines will fire for a powered descent.
A team of space agency scientists selected the landing site, the foot of a mountain within a deep, 150-kilometer-wide 93-mile) depression called Gale Crater. Each layer of rock contains clues about the planet’s evolution.