|By Ara Aslanian|
Two years ago, in June of 2010, the Inverselogic team was privileged to get invited to tour NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and experience firsthand the lab where the Mars Curiosity rover was being assembled. It helps to have a very close friend who has been part of the Curiosity team at JPL from the beginning.
|Alan standing next to full size MSL model at JPL |
It was amazing to see the lab and every small detail that goes into accomplishing such a monumental task. This is where we first saw the animation video of what is now called the Seven Minutes of Terror, the seven minutes it takes for MSL (Mars Science Laboratory) Curiosity to enter the Mars atmosphere, drop its heat shield, and deploy a monster parachute to slow it down enough for its rocket-assisted descent onto the surface of Mars. But just before it can land, an air crane must lower it to the surface and cut away so the dust particles don't damage the Rover. When I first saw the video it looked like a science fiction movie to me. You just have a hard time grasping the magnitude of events involved and how precise they would have to be for a landing on Mars.
|MSL inside the LAB at JPL |
Fast forward just a little over two years--it's the day MSL is going to land on Mars. I get a call on Sunday morning from my friend asking me if I have any plans that evening because he wants to invite my wife and me to experience the landing on Mars from Cal-Tech. I believe my answer came in a split second... "I just canceled any plans I had."
Even though I've been very close to the project and always heard about it from my friend, I didn't grasp the magnitude of the drama and thrill in what was to be this landing. The large projection screen kept showing live video from JPL's Mission Control and replaying the video of the Seven Minutes of Terror. Each time the video played I realized more and more what a difficult task this landing is going to be. Then you look around and think, with all these scientists and engineers present who have given the last seven years of their lives to this project, what if something goes wrong? What if one small step does not function properly? The entire mission would be lost, and it would just go down in history as another one of the twenty-something failed landings on Mars.
Finally, the big moment was here. You could feel the tension in the air as the entire field went silent. This was the start of the Seven Minutes of Terror in our world. In reality, by this time, Curiosity had either landed on Mars or crashed. It takes seven minutes for Odyssey to transfer the signal to Earth which, by the way, had to get repositioned minutes before to be in direct view of Curiosity and Earth in order to send the signal. As Curiosity descends into the Mars atmosphere the tension both at Mission Control and at the View site becomes increasingly noticeable. As each stage of the landing is announced, from the heat shield separation to the parachute deployment to the announcement that the MSL is slowing down, you can hear cheers and see the smiles, as each stage represents a monumental task that has been accomplished successfully. Finally, we have powered flight where the rockets fire to slow down Curiosity and find the perfect landing spot on the surface of Mars, before the air crane will start to lower it to its final landing spot.
This was the last stage. The few seconds of silence seemed like an eternity. The crane had started to lower its 4 cables, and once the weight of the Curiosity was no longer pulling on the lander, it would fire 4 small rocket-like igniters to cut the 4 cords and Curiosity would be on the ground on Mars. When data came that the cords had indeed cut away and Curiosity was on Mars, a cheer broke out. JPL had just landed a car-sized rover on Mars! Seconds after, a low res thumbnail image of its wheels on the surface brought even a louder cheer. It was a significant moment. Not only had it landed--it was ALIVE!
|Crossing Sign at JPL|
I have been lucky enough to witness one of our nation's true proud moments in science and technology achievements. The accomplishment is truly amazing!