The plan for the new rover's Martian touchdown next month is ingenious, and not all that different from how a Disney cartoon once imagined it.
In just about a month, the newest robot resident of Mars is scheduled to arrive. Curiosity, as the little rover is known, is a work of technological art. As Ross Andersen wrote here on The Atlantic, this plutonium-powered machine will be able to vaporize rocks with its laser-eyes, track the weather, and film its surroundings in HD. But as impressive as the technology is that Curiosity packs, perhaps the plan to get this rover on the Martian ground is even more so. NASA scientist Michael Mischna explained to Andersen:
Curiosity, like most of the spacecraft that have gone to Mars, will arrive in a capsule; as it approaches the surface, the friction of Mars' atmosphere will slow the spacecraft and trigger a special steering system onboard. That's one of the unique things about this mission -- the capsule isn't just a ballistic object plummeting through space. It actually moves in response to precise conditions in the atmosphere. After the capsule slows to a certain speed, a parachute will deploy to slow it down even further. The capsule's heat shield will drop off the bottom and expose the rover to the Martian atmosphere, after which the rover will detach from the parachute and plummet to the ground on this cool thing we call a sky crane. A sky crane is a rocket system in the underbelly of the spacecraft; its rockets fire towards the ground, allowing the spacecraft to slow and then hover 30 to 50 meters from the surface. Then cables come down and Curiosity, the rover, is lowered to the ground. When the rover senses touchdown on the surface, the cables detach and the sky-crane system launches off into the distance.
Sounds pretty ridiculous, right? Looks pretty ridiculous too. Here's a video trailer NASA has released of what this all would look like, should things go according to plan.
And, if we get really lucky, orbiters around Mars will be passing overhead right as this happens, and we'll have pictures of the actual event, Mischna told Andersen.
As futuristic as this all is, NASA's history office pointed out today that Disney a 1957 cartoon imagined something pretty similar. Skip to 7:09 to see the more-than-half-century-old rover come to Mars.
The clip, which comes from the "Mars and Beyond" episode of Disneyland, is worth watching in its entirety for some classic mid-century thinking about what Mars would hold for future explorers. "In solving the enigma of the Red Planet Mars," the narrator proclaims, "man may find a key that opens the first small door to the universe." I'm not sure what it means to solve the enigma of Mars today, but with Curiosity's aid we will get a smidgen more understanding of that planet that's been enticing us with its literal other-worldliness -- and yet its tantalizing proximity -- for centuries.