This afternoon I watched the press conferences for Mars Science Laboratory “Curiosity” that were hosted by NASA/JPL from Pasadena, Ca. These conferences were broadcast over NASA-TV, both on the cable/satellite channels and over the web. If you haven’t seen the Seven Minutes Video I encourage you to watch it.
Various scientists, directors and managers of the project discussed various aspects of the mission, including discussing how the craft does what it’s designed to. The biggest message I carry away from today’s two conferences is “Complexity”. This is by far the most complex robotic probe ever launched to space, perhaps the most complex robotic probe mission ever.
If you watch the video, you will notice that during the landing, the probe plummets through the atmosphere like a well-guided rock. This is literally what it is doing – falling like a rock that knows how to keep itself upright. It manages to do this by using guidance rockets, a heat shield with a “just right” shape, and weights that help keep one side tilted slightly towards the ground. While it’s in this configuration, the guidance rockets make minute adjustments as needed, keeping the probe on course. This precision guided entry is a large part of how Curiosity is able to make the landing ellipse small. This whole phase is a series of fantastic engineering achievements. It is tied in history to the Apollo reentry methods, where we brought astronauts back to Earth, safely.