Seventy-nine explosive bolts had to ignite in a precise and intricate dance of directed destruction. If even one bolt misfired, it was game over, man. Game over.
By now, I’m sure you dudes have all heard the news. The Curiosity rover actually landed on Mars, in one piece, is working and is sending back pictures of the surrounding aeroscape (that’s Martian landscape for you dudes).
Personally, I’m more than a little bit astonished.
The precision necessary for this to be pulled off is mind-boggling. So many things had to be timed perfectly, executed without pause or fail and to the exact, planned degree or it would have all fallen apart. And yet it worked.
Let’s go through the steps. First, the lander blasted off from Earth and spent years crossing the frigid, desolate void between planets, alone among the stars, with only its programmed guidance and occasional course corrections to guide it.
Once it achieved orbit around Mars, the lander hit the breaks, deorbiting into the thin Martian air. The Martian atmosphere is a problem, just thick enough to cause devastating problems if you ignore it, but too thin to really help in slowing stuff down as it falls toward the surface. Regardless, the lander’s heat shield bore the brunt of the impact with the atmosphere, slowing the lander a little.
The lander slowed just enough for the deployment of a supersonic drag parachute. This thing had to withstand thousands of pounds of pressure. Because of the thin atmosphere, the parachute could only slow the plummeting lander to about 200 mph, not nearly enough to survive landing.
This is where things get a little . . . odd.
Once hanging under the parachute, the lander jettisoned the heat shield. Still too heavy and falling too fast. So the next thing to go is the parachute and the frame around the lander.
Now the Curiosity is in freefall down toward the planet below. It’s going to get ugly.
Or at least it would have if we hadn’t had some visionary, exceptional scientists and engineers working on the problem back at NASA and the propulsion laboratory back on Earth.
The lander next employs rocket engines to slow it down to almost nothing and then hovers over the Martian landing site. However, if it were to put down, the rocket exhaust would stir up so much dust and grit, it undoubtably would have damaged Curiosity.
So, instead, the rocket engine begins to lower Curiosity down to the surface at the bottom of a 25-meter rope. Once the rover is wheels down on Mars, the ropes release thanks to explosive bolts, and the rocket engine blasts away to it’s own crash landing.
And there you have it. A two-ton rover landed on Mars, in one of the most daring and ambitious feats of engineering ever.
This, dudes, is what it’s all about.
What we gain from this will be, literally, incalculable. The boost to our spirit, to our national resolve, all amazing. The knowledge we gain from Mars and from putting the rover there, will help us in so many more ways.
And, come on, we just landed something the size of a Dodge Ram pickup on the surface of another planet.
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