Relive NASA's 'Seven Minutes of Terror' from August 6, 2012
Wednesday, August 6, 2014, 9:58 PM - At 1:23 a.m. EDT, on August 6, 2012 - two years ago today - NASA scientists and engineers sat in a control room, nervously awaiting news from their newest Mars explorer, the Mars Science Laboratory - aka Curiosity.
The worst part of it was the last seven minutes of the journey, since those were the do-or-die moments. Curiosity's seven-minute trip from the top of the Mars atmosphere to the surface of the planet would use a completely new landing sequence, based on the use of parachutes, then directed thrusters and finally a 'sky crane' to lower the rover lightly to the ground. However, during those seven minutes, the rover would be completely on its own, with no guidance from Earth, due to the communications blackout that occurs when a spacecraft enters the atmosphere. Those sitting in the control room would simply have to trust in the rover's programming and hardware to execute the landing flawlessly, when any one problem with the landing could spell doom for the mission.
Worse yet, the time lag between Mars and Earth at the time was 14 minutes long, twice as long as Curiosity's descent to the Martian surface. Thus, by the time the team here received word that the rover had reached the top of the atmosphere, it would have already been on the surface of the planet for seven minutes.
Whether that was sitting calmly, awaiting orders from its human controllers, or littered across the Martian landscape in thousands of pieces, only that seven minutes of extra time would tell.
Fortunately, for the team (and the rover), this is how it all went down, if we remove that time lag:
CHECK BACK TOMORROW!: Our extended 'Mars Week' continues here on www.theweathernetwork.com, as we explore some of the amazing science conducted by the Curiosity rover, and then take a look into the future of Mars exploration!