Curiosity in Cruise
The Mars Science Laboratory, or Curiosity rover, will attempt to land on the Martian surface after spending more than eight months cruising toward the Red Planet. The rover will land inside Gale Crater, where it will explore a giant mountain at the center, and search for signs that Mars could have supported life.
Here's how Curiosity's landing will work:
As Curiosity approaches Mars, the rover is safely tucked inside the spacecraft's aeroshell. The approach phase begins 45 minutes before the spacecraft penetrates the Martian atmosphere. To help with navigation, Curiosity will enter the atmosphere 2,188 miles (3,522 kilometers) above the center of the planet.
Mars Science Laboratory Aeroshell Capsule
The aeroshell is the largest ever used for a mission to Mars, spanning 14.8 feet (4.5 meters) across.
In this artist's illustration, the Mars Science Laboratory aershell capsule is entering the Martian atmosphere.
Thrusters on the Aeroshell
Curiosity's landing will be more accurately coordinated compared to any Mars landings before it, thanks to a highly precise guided entry system.
This artist's concept depicts thrusters on the backshell of the spacecraft's aeroshell firing during the entry, descent and landing phase. Firing these thrusters will help adjust the orientation of the spacecraft during the guided entry maneuvers, NASA officials have said.
Descent and Landing Phase
In this illustrated scene, the friction of Mars' atmosphere is slowing the spacecraft's descent and heating the heat shield.
Parachute for Landing
The parachute is designed to survive being deployed at Mach 2.2 as the spacecraft travels through the atmosphere of Mars. During this time, it will generate up to 65,000 pounds (almost 29,500 kilograms) of drag force.
The parachute system is attached to the top of the backshell. In this artist's illustration, the heat shield portion of the aeroshell has been jettisoned, and the Curiosity rover can be seen tucked into the backshell. The spacecraft's descent stage is inside the backshell, which drops away so that a radar system on the descent stage can begin determining the spacecraft's altitude and velocity.
Curiosity Inside the Backshell
Since the Curiosity rover is too big to use airbags to soften its landing, the spacecraft will use a sky crane to lower it to the surface.
The Descent Stage
The descent stage carries a radar system that will relay information about the spacecraft's altitude and velocity. This artist's concept shows the descent stage of the Mars Science Laboratory during the final minute before the Curiosity rover lands on the Red Planet.
As it nears the surface, shortly after the moment shown here, the descent stage will lower the rover on a bridle and deliver it safely to the surface.
Rover Using Sky Crane
This illustrated scene shows part of the sky crane maneuver. The spacecraft's descent stage, while controlling its own rate of descent with four of its eight throttle-controllable rocket engines, is lowering Curiosity on a bridle. Three nylon tethers connect the rover to the descent stage, with an umbilical that also provides power and communication connection.
This bridle will extend to about 25 feet (7.5 meters), as the rover descends to the surface. Seconds later, once touchdown has been detected, the bridle will be cut and the descent stage will fly off and crash-land safely away from the rover
Landing Attached to a Bridle
Then, the rocket-powered descent stage will fly away, and will crash-land on the surface a safe distance away from the rover.