When I was in Washington a couple of weeks ago for ICCC6,
I took the family to the National Air and Space Museum on the mall. While everyone was gazing at rockets and other bus-sized hardware of glory days past, off in the corner I noticed this, roped off, without a placard even:
About the size of a Jeep, it looked ready to rumble on the red planet. I figured they would use the air bag bouncy deployment system that worked so well for Spirit and Opportunity, just super-sized.
But after learning a bit more about how Curiosity will be landed, and watching a video from NASA JPL on the mission sequencing, I was surprised to learn they weren’t using that method, but rather a series of mechanical, dangling drops by wire, and rocket maneuvers, that look more than a bit worrying due to the complex synchronization that must occur. Watch this video:
This artist’s concept animation depicts key events of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission, which will launch in late 2011 and land a rover, Curiosity, on Mars in August 2012.
My view: there’s a lot more that can go wrong. One thruster rocket failure, or a tangled drop wire, is all it would take to doom the mission. Mars is known for eating missions, with an over 50% failure rate, so adding to the complexity during landing, especially that dangling rover under a hovering rocket, looks mighty failure-prone.
More on the mission here at NASA JPL.