NASA's Curiosity space rover, at a value of £1.6 billion is set to launch on Saturday, on a long journey to Mars. It will reach the red planet by August of 2012, if all goes well.
The Nuclear powered rover craft will enter the thin atmosphere at 3,200 mph, descending to the floor of a 100 mile crater. The rover will be lowered on cables suspended from a rocket powered ‘sky crane'. A lot of things can go wrong on the long journey and the landing is said to be complex (it has six 20 inch wide wheels), but if all goes well the craft will be looking for organic compounds and signs of potential life.
The biggest issue the designers have faced is that the rover has not been tested in an end to end space flight as it is impossible in Earth's gravity. The engineering team has had to rely on intensive testing and thousands of computer simulations. The team are referring to the landing section of the journey as ‘six minutes of terror'.
Peter Theisinger, the project manager said “We have done a tremendous amount of entry, descent, and landing reviews and tests, You can't do an end-to-end test because you can't land on Mars on the Earth. But you can do the tests in a piece-wise sense. So we have done deployments of the sky crane with test equipment and we have done surface contact testing. We have done radar testing on helicopters and F-18 jets…to basically test all the components of the sky crane system. So we're confident we've done our due diligence.”
The journey to the red planet has been a tough goal to achieve, the united states alone launched 18 missions to Mars, with 5 failing. The Russians have a lower success rate, with only 2 ‘partial' successes out of 20 launches. The current status of the Russian mission to Phobos hasn't worked well either. They are stranded in earth orbit because of a propulsion system malfunction several weeks ago.
Kitguru says: We wish them the best of fortunes!