MILLEDGEVILLE — It’s been an exciting week for space exploration fans: the Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity made a text book case landing in Gale Crater on Mars in the wee hours of Monday morning, August 6. The media has been abuzz with news and you’d have to be literally living under a rock not to have heard about it. Science is way cool right now, geeks rule and everybody wants a piece of Mars.
The landing – horribly complicated as it was – went so smoothly, it felt about as routine as, say, putting gas into the car. The space capsule entered the atmosphere at a slight angle, caused by carefully placed tungsten ballasts. Those ballasts, or “slugs”, were ejected prior to the parachute opening, so the capsule would hang nice and straight on the chute once it opened. Eagle-eyed folks working with the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) have already spotted the six new craters on Mars that those ballasts made.
The parachute is a bit of a miracle in itself – at the insane speeds Curiosity was going in the thin Martian atmosphere it had to be a very large supersonic parachute. You can’t get those at the local Chutes’R’Us!
The heat shield was jettisoned right on schedule – and this is where something totally new for a Mars landing happened: cameras mounted on the rover that face straight down kicked in and filmed how the heat shield fell away, and then we can see in stunning detail how the Martian ground comes rushing up towards us.
Then the parachute was jettisoned and the amazing Sky Crane fired up its rocket thrusters, stopping the descent of the whole package in mid-air. It gently lowered the rover to the ground on some ropes, then cut the ropes and flew off a polite distance to promptly crash-land itself, since its job was quite done.