After years of development and billions of dollars in investment, the fate of NASA's Mars Rover Curiosity will ultimately hinge upon just a few minutes — seven, to be exact. That's the amount of time it will take for Curiosity to make the voyage from Mars' atmosphere to the planet's surface, and according to NASA, it's bound to be fraught with tension.
Today, the agency published a short video clip that explains this landing process in dramatic detail, putting a particular emphasis on the degree of difficulty involved. Once the craft enters Mars' atmosphere, it will have just seven minutes to go from 13,000 mph to zero, as part of its entry, descent, and landing (EDL). To do this, Curiosity will have to follow a carefully calibrated sequence that NASA's engineers will be unable to control from the ground.
During entry, Curiosity's heat shield will have to deal with temperatures approaching 1600 degrees, as the craft guides itself toward a relatively small landing space. Once it passes through Mars' thin atmosphere, Curiosity — now traveling at a speed of 1,000 mph — will deploy a supersonic parachute designed to withstand 65,000 pounds of force. This, however, will only slow it down to about 200 mph, at which point the Rover will activate a set of rockets and divert itself away from the parachute.
From there, Curiosity's radar will have to identify the perfect landing spot, before the Rover is lowered on a 21-foot long tether. It's an astonishingly complex process, and one that can't afford even the slightest hitch. As EDL engineer Tom Rivellini says, "If any one thing doesn't work just right, it's game over."