September 1, 2014

A nail biter for NASA

A nerve-wracking Mars landing is set to take place this weekend. NASA’s Curiosty rover will land on the red planet early Monday morning – hopefully. The landing sequence, which culminates with the rover being lowered to the planet’s surface on a tether, will take place without any control from Earth, and has been dubbed “seven minutes of terror.” Dixie Burns is an astronomy instructor at Madison College who’s been following the mission since its launch last November. “It takes about 14 minutes for any signal from Mars to reach the earth. But it’s going to take the spacecraft seven minutes to land on Mars.”

“The spacecraft has to do the entire landing without communication from NASA,” Burns said. “By the time we know it’s reached the atmosphere, it will be on the surface of Mars, one way or the other, either successfully or as a failure.” Burns notes there have been a fair number of failures in the history of Mars exploration. “Most of those were in the earlier space race, when we really didn’t know much about Mars. Luckily, most of the recent missions have been successful.”

If Curiosity successfully completes the intricate landing sequence, the SUV-sized vehicle is scheduled to remain in operation for two years, exploring Mars for conditions that could support life. There will be worldwide attention paid to the landing (at 12:31 a.m. Monday, local time). “There’s a lot of things that have to happen, perfectly right, at the exact right moment,” said Burns.