In just over three weeks’ time, the Mars Science Laboratory rover named Curiosity will land on the surface of Mars.
At least that’s what we hope will happen.
The Curiosity landing sequence is extremely complex, using never before tried technologies. The large rover is equipped with a parachute and a giant heat shield when it plunges into the Martian atmosphere. First, it has to discard its heat shield at the right time. Next, its parachute must open. At the right altitude, the parachute must detach, and retrorockets must fire. Then, the rover itself is lowered onto the surface on nylon ropes (effectively, a skycrane mechanism). Then, the ropes must be cut by explosive bolts and the skycrane with the retrorockets must fly away before crashing onto the surface at a safe distance. In this entire sequence, there is very little room for error.
Mars has not been kind to spacecraft. More than 50% of missions to the Red Planet failed. Hopefully, Curiosity will not contribute to that sad statistic. But, it will be a scary landing.