The Madeleine Brand Show

The Madeleine Brand Show is a daily, two-hour program that looks at news and culture through the lens of Southern California. Hosted by Madeleine Brand

NASA gets ready for Mars rover landing

by Sanden Totten | The Madeleine Brand Show

This artist's concept features NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, a mobile robot for investigating Mars' past or present ability to sustain microbial life. Curiosity will land near the Martian equator about 10:31 p.m., Aug. 5 PDT (1:31 a.m. Aug. 6 EDT). NASA/ JPL-Cal Tech

KPCC reporters have been talking to Southland scientists and engineers and counting down the days until NASA's most ambitious rover yet — Curiosity — prepares to land on the Martian surface. Follow the series online.

The mission is to land a one-ton, SUV-sized rover on an alien planet millions of miles away.

Easy, right?

After all, NASA has landed spacecraft on Mars before. It used rockets for the Viking probes in the 1970s. It used a giant inflatable ball to bounce the Sojourner rover onto the surface of the Red Planet in the 1990s.

But for the "Curiosity" rover due to touch down on Mars this weekend, the Rube Goldberg minds at NASA pulled out an idea from the Tom Cruise movie, “Mission Impossible.”

When the capsule containing the rover hits the Martian atmosphere, out pops a parachute designed for supersonic speeds.

That slows the capsule down, but not enough to land. So the rover drops out of the capsule, attached a jet-powered hovercraft that glides down to about 60-feet above the Martian terra firma.

Then, like Tom Cruise in the “Mission Impossible” movie, the rover is lowered to the surface on cables.

When it touches the ground, super-sharp blades slices away the cables, and the hovercraft flies off to crash someplace far away, leaving Curiosity safe on Martian soil and ready for what could be the most spectacle scientific exploration of another planet in history.

The job of making sure that impossible mission is accomplished belongs to a team of bright scientists and engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, among them Miguel San Martin, the Guidance, Navigation and Control chief engineer.

San Martin and his team won’t steer Curiosity; the entire landing sequence is automated. All they can do is track the rover’s progress — and cross their fingers.

San Martin said it was the same when the Spirit and Opportunity rovers landed on Mars in 2004.

“It’s exciting. Adrenaline is flowing. Sounds sound different, almost like an out-of-body, what do you call it? ‘Out-of-body experience?’ It’s stressful as hell, but it would not be as fun if it wasn’t stressful.”

Landing spacecraft on Mars is stressful because the Red Planet has a nasty reputation. Over the 50 years that NASA and other space agencies have been trying to send spacecraft to Mars, two-thirds of the missions have ended end in failure: the spacecraft goes silent or sails off into the Great Beyond — or just plain crashes.

But when NASA runs test scenarios for Curiosity’s landing procedure, the success rate is really high.

“We are above 99-percent,” said San Martin. “In other missions, like Spirit and Opportunity, we were getting the low 90s.”

Still, San Martin will hold his breath until the new rover is safe and sound and on the ground. But then?

“We party a lot. Yes. That’s all I am going to say.”

But once the party is over, said JPL deputy project scientist Ashwin Vasavada, “We are actually going to get to work.”

Vasavada said if you sum up the Curiosity’s mission in a sentence, “surveying and sampling would be the verbs.”

“But the one word that describes our science is habitability. We are looking to understand whether Mars was ever a habitable planet," said Vasavada.

They’ll do that by analyzing rocks and soil for organic compounds: the building blocks of life. If they find them, there’s a good chance there was, or still is, some form of life on Mars. But Vasavada said like any tourist, the first thing the Curiosity rover will do when it arrives on Mars will be to snap a picture.

“Take a very wide angle black and white picture just to see if there are any hazards in front of the rover,” said Vasavada. “So hopefully we’ll get that just an hour or two after the landing.”

There’s a lot of riding on this mission. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is slated for significant budget cuts next year.

The Curiosity rover cost $2.5 billion. If it crashes or fails, NASA likely won’t have the money build another for a very long time. The stakes are high. But as Planetary Society CEO and well-known “Science Guy” Bill Nye pointed out, so are the possible rewards.

“If we find evidence of living things on Mars, it would change the way everybody felt about his or her, what I love to call, place in space,” said Nye. “This is a worthy undertaking. This is an astonishing thing. This could change the world.”

Before Curiosity can change this world, it must touch down on another first. The rover starts its landing procedure on Mars this Sunday at 10:31pm Pacific time.

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