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Countdown to Curiosity’s 7 minutes of terror

CALTECH (US) — NASA’s rover Curiosity is expected to touch down on Mars at 10:31 p.m. (PDT) on Sunday, August 5. Here are some facts about the landing and mission.

Since launching in November 2011, NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) has been traveling full steam ahead on a journey that will traverse over 350 million miles.

Tucked into a spacecraft for safekeeping during flight, MSL contains the Curiosity rover. As part of a long-term effort of robotic exploration, the rover’s mission is to determine the planet’s habitability.

If everything goes as planned, Curiosity—which was designed, built, and tested at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech)—will become the fourth rover to survey Mars.


Seven minutes of terror

The estimated length of time it will take the rover to make its entry, descent, and landing on Mars once it arrives at the Red Planet’s atmosphere: About seven minutes.

Dubbed the “seven minutes of terror” by NASA, MSL will employ a parachute, landing rockets, a hovering sky crane, and other complicated mechanisms to help lower the rover to the surface of Mars.

51 feet of parachute

The diameter of the parachute that will assist in Curiosity’s landing: 51 feet. Made from white and orange material, the parachute will bring Caltech colors to the Red Planet.

Crater landing site

The rover will land near the base of Mount Sharp, inside Gale Crater. Mount Sharp, a layered mountain that rises three miles above the crater floor, was named to honor the late Caltech geologist Bob Sharp (BS ’34, MS ’35).

The number of possible landing sites scientists considered before deciding on Gale Crater: 60. Gale Crater was chosen because it is thought to contain elements that are important to the search for the ingredients of life.

Weather on Mars

Cold and windy with wind gusts of up to 90 mph—as strong as some hurricane winds on Earth. Mars is home to dust storms and quickly moving whirlwinds known as dust devils. Temperatures on the planet can get as cold as minus 199 degrees Fahrenheit.

The mass of a MINI Cooper

1,982 pounds. The rover has a mass close to that of a MINI Cooper, but it is more like a small SUV in size.

How fast?

On average, the rover is expected to travel across the surface of Mars at about 30 meters (98 feet) per hour, based on power levels, slippage, steepness of the terrain, visibility, and other variables.

17 cameras

The number of cameras on Curiosity: 17. The rover also has 10 scientific instruments (some of which are part of the group of 17 cameras) to do many of the tasks scientists do in a lab.

Instead of sending samples back to Earth for humans to analyze, the Curiosity rover will thus be able to do laboratory tests right from the Martian surface.

7-foot robotic arm

The arm is capable of collecting powdered samples from rocks, scooping soil, preparing and delivering samples for analytic instruments, and brushing surfaces on the planet.

Curiosity’s new home

The plan is for Curiosity to operate on the surface of Mars for one Martian year. Because a day on Mars is longer than one on Earth—39 minutes and 35.244 seconds longer, to be exact—a Martian year is equal to 98 weeks, or 687 days, on Earth.

(Credit: JMoore/JPL)

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