NASA: Spacecraft fireworks on Mars will herald and ensure lab landing

NASA Mars Science Laboratory will need to set off 76 charges to make sure all systems are go for landing

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NASA is calling the event "the Spirit of 76 Pyrotechnics" - that is the amount of explosive devices that need to fire off to make sure the Mars Science Laboratory lands safely and successfully on the red planet's surface.

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From NASA:  "Some Mars Science Laboratory pyrotechnics will be as small as the energy released by a box of matches. One packs the same oomph as a stick of TNT. Whether they are large or small, on the evening of August 5th (Pacific time), all 76 must work on cue as NASA's next Mars rover, Curiosity, carried by the Mars Science Laboratory, streaks through the Red Planet's atmosphere on its way to a landing at Gale Crater."

NASA says the sequence of events that NASA has also called "Curiosity's Seven Minutes of Terror" goes like this:

  • 1. Seventeen minutes before landing, the first 10 of 76 pyros will fire within five milliseconds of each other, releasing the cruise stage that provided the entry capsule (and its cocooned descent vehicle and the Curiosity rover) with power, communications and thermal control support during its 254-day journey to Mars.
  • 2. One hundred and twenty-five milliseconds later, two more pyros fire, releasing compressed springs that jettison two 165-pound (75-kilogram) solid tungsten weights. These weights allow the entry capsule to perform history's first planetary lifting body entry.
  • 3. A dozen minutes and one fiery, lifting-body atmospheric reentry later, another smaller set of tungsten weights is ejected by pyros to re-adjust the lander's center of mass for the final approach to the surface. A few seconds after that, the largest bang since the spacecraft separated from its Atlas rocket 254 days before is scheduled to occur.
  • 4. While the ejection of the parachute is the biggest pyrotechnic display during the crucial entry, descent and landing, it is certainly not the last. The landing system needs to be released from the shell that helped protect it during entry. The sky crane's descent engines need to be pressurized, and the rover itself needs to be released from the sky crane, where it is lowered on tethers toward the surface. All told, there are another 44 controlled explosions that need to happen at exactly the right time and at absolutely no other time for Curiosity to touch down safely at Gale Crater.

 "We are definitely coming in with a bang -- or a series of them," said Pete Theisinger, Mars Science Laboratory project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said in a statement.

"When we need valves to open, or things to move or come apart, we want to be confident they will do so within milliseconds of the time we plan for them to do so," said Rich Webster, a pyromechanical engineer at JPL. "With pyros, no electrical motors need to move. No latches need to be unlatched. We blow things apart -- scientifically."

NASA's Mars Science Laboratory is slated for n August 5 rendezvous with the red planet.  NASA recently tweaked the software on the spacecraft and narrowed landing target for the Mars rover, Curiosity letting it touch down closer to its ultimate destination for science operations.

According to NASA, the landing target had been an ellipse approximately 12 miles wide and 16 miles long (20 kilometers by 25 kilometers). Continuing analysis of the new landing system's capabilities has allowed mission planners to shrink the area to approximately 4 miles wide and 12 miles long (7 kilometers by 20 kilometers), assuming winds and other atmospheric conditions as predicted.

NASA said Curiosity's landing site is near the base of a mountain known as Mount Sharp inside Gale Crater, near the Martian equator. Rock layers located in the mountain are the prime location for research with the rover. Researchers plan to use Curiosity to study layers in the mountain that hold evidence about wet environments of early Mars. According to NASA, Mount Sharp rises about 5 kilometers above the landing target on the crater floor, higher than Mount Rainier above Seattle, though broader and closer.

Some other recent updates in the mission:

  • Software upgrades: The Lab will use an upgraded version of flight software installed on its computers during the past two weeks. Additional upgrades for Mars surface operations will be sent to the rover about a week after landing.
  • Drill bits: NASA has gotten a better understanding of how the debris generated from the Lab's drill might sully the rock samples NASA is interested in. Experiments at JPL indicate that Teflon from the drill could mix with the powdered samples. Testing will continue past landing with copies of the drill. The rover will deliver the samples to onboard instruments that can identify mineral and chemical ingredients. "The material from the drill could complicate, but will not prevent analysis of carbon content in rocks by one of the rover's 10 instruments. There are workarounds," said John Grotzinger, MSL project scientist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena in a statement. "Organic carbon compounds in an environment are one prerequisite for life. We know meteorites deliver non-biological organic carbon to Mars, but not whether it persists near the surface. We will be checking for that and for other chemical and mineral clues about habitability."
  • Two NASA Mars orbiters along with a European Space Agency orbiter will be in position to listen to radio transmissions as MSL descends through Mars' atmosphere.

 Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8 and on Facebook

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