Mars Rover Curiosity – Journey and Touchdown (VIDEO)

The Mars Rover Curiosity touches down on August 6th 2012 at 05:30:43 (UTC), (follow the countdown) less than two months from now. Curiosity will be landing with a mechanism that’s never been tested on another planet; it has also had to bear temperature fluctuations of 500 degrees Fahrenheit. With so much at stake, how is it that Curiosity has made it this far, and how can we be sure that such a complex landing system will work? Videos and transcripts below.

Transcript Video 1:

Curiosity Rover’s Journey to Mars

Fernando Abilleira (Trajectory Analyst): Approximately 50 minutes after launch, the spacecraft separate froms the upper stage of the launch vehicle. 6 minutes after that, the spacecraft sends a signal back to Earth which is received by the tracking stations. Once we’ve received the signal, we’re ready to send our first command out to the spacecraft – and that actually marks the beginning of the cruise phase.

Erisa Hines (Systems Engineer):
There are some incredibly challenges on the way ot mars. One of the things is there are always anomalies, there are always things that are going to go wrong that you never expected. You have a baby spacecraft that is now on its way to MArs, and it’s seeing the space environment for the first time, so it’s going to see temperature ranges from -250 F to +250 F. And you’ve got instruments all over the spacecraft and propellant lines that you can’t let freeze. And so there’s always this challenge of keeping the spacecraft at tune thermally.

Fred Serricchio (Systems Engineer):
Some of the things that we’re going to be doing during the cruise phase are some trajectory correction manoeuvres – which are basically pushing us along the path of where we want to end up when we arrive at Mars. The launch vehicle puts us on a specific path on a trajectory and along the way from here to mars over the 9 months of flying we get to make small corrections to that.

Erisa Hines (Systems Engineer):
If you were trained to shoot a bow and arrow at a target – and you had drawn back the bow and you had shot off the arrow and you realise all of a sudden that it wasn’t actually going to hit the target; how great would it be if you could pause in the middle, make a slight adjustment to the arrow, and watch it hit the target?

Steven Collins (Attitude Control Engineer):
We have given ourselves 6 opportunities to make a trajectory correction manoeuvre. And each of those correction manoeuvres uses the thrusters on the spacecraft to give a little push to the spacecraft to correct its trajectory.

Erisa Hines (Systems Engineer):
One of the things that makes landing on another planet so difficult is essentially that we’re trying to hit a moving target. The spacecraft left a planet that was spinning around the sun at its own speed, and we’re now aiming for another planet. And we can’t just aim for where the planet is at the time of the launch – but we have to aim for where we think the planets going to be by the time that we get there.

Steven Collins (Attitude Control Engineer):
All of those motions, the navigation team has to carefully track and predict where things are going to be in the solar system in order for us to successfully navigate to mars.

Fred Serricchio (Systems Engineer):
The trip from here to Mars is over 8 and a half months. And we need to make sure that we monitor all of the sensitive instruments, science and engineering, to make sure that over the 8 and a half month journey everything is working properly.

Erisa Hines (Systems Engineer):
The better we do our job during the cruise phase of the mission, the better the entry, descent and landing phase of the mission will go as well as the surface phase.

Transcript Video 2:

Curiosity Rover’s Landing Mechanism

Before curiosity can explore mars, it’s got to get there first. The last stage of the launch vehicle gives the spacecraft the final push and spins it up for our 8 and a half month cruise to the red planet.

10 minutes before hitting the atmosphere, cruise stage separates and final preparations for entry begin.

Hitting the atmosphere at about 13,000mph, the spacecraft begins to slow down. While slowing down, the spacecraft uses its thrusters to help steer towards the landing target.

We throw off weights to rebalance the spacecraft so that it’s lined up for parachute deployment. After slowing to mach 2, or about 1,000mph, we deploy the parachute to slow it down even further.

Once we’re below the speed of sound, the heat shield separates and the spacecraft floats to the ground with a landing radar.

Once we’ve reached an altitude of about 1 mile, the spacecraft drops out of the backshell at about 200mph and then fires up the landing engines to slow it down even further.

Once we’ve descended to about 60 feet above the ground and are going only about 2mph, the rover separates for the decent stage. As the rover is lowered, the wheels deploy in preparation for landing.

Once the rover is on the ground and touch down has been detected, the descent stage cuts the rover loose. It flies away leaving Curiosity safe on the surface of Mars.

One of the first things Curiosity does after landing, is to deploy the mast – it supports many cameras and instruments.

Curiosity shoots a laser at an interesting target, this helps us quickly understand the kind and composition of that target at a distance of up to 30 feet.

If the target’s worth a closer look, Curiosity can drive up and inspect it with the instruments and tools at the end of its arm.

The drill on the arm allows us to grab some of that rock and deliver it to the laboratory instruments inside the body of the rover. Those instruments can tell us even more about the mineral composition, getting us closer to understanding whether life could have existed on Mars.

Curiosity will be exploring the red planet for at least two Earth years. And there’s no telling what we will discover.

Further Reading

Learn more about planet Mars, its moons and history.

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Nick is the webmaster of and regularly contributes to the news section on the site. Nick had a passion for astronomy at a young age and after completing a degree in Economics at the University of Leicester, he decided to dedicate a website to the planets.