Mars Landing 2012: NASA Celebrates Seven Minutes of Terror

Written by Richard Hay

Image Credit: Richard Hay on location

I took the above shot several hours before NASA landed on Mars early today. NASA Ames had a ton of financial and intellectual capital — and pride — invested in this week’s touchdown of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), often referred to as the Curiosity Lander. It touched down early a.m. today ET.

Most invested: Dr. Dean Kontinos, Chief of the Entry Systems and Technology Division at NASA Ames Research Center and his legions of engineers.

Some key systems in the EDL (Entry, Descent, and Landing) were designed and tested at NASA Ames so the engineers and designers here felt the “seven minutes of terror, as they called it” the most. If Curiosity failed to reach the surface of Mars intact, it would have been an enormous disappointment.

So there was a nervous energy, cautious optimism and even drama in watching the livefeed from Mission Control at its Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in Pasadena, CA. But there was also a huge amount of pride. Here’s the team going wild in celebration upon touchdown.

NASA Ames Curiosity contributions will, NASA says, include:

… work on the Chemical and Minerology instrument (CheMin), Arc Jet Testing, Parachute testing in the world’s largest wind tunnel (80 feet tall), Phenolic Impregnated Carbon Ablator (PICA) material used in the heat shield (invented at NASA in 2007), and MEDLI (Mars Science Laboratory Entry, Descent and Landing Instrument).

Engineers manned booths and worked on the various EDL systems answering questions about the stress of the landing cycle: Enter the Martian atmosphere at 13,000 mph with temperatures up to 1600 degrees. Used the PICA heat shield to slow down to mach 1, then deploy the supersonic parachute, slow to 200mph, detach, launch retro rockets, hover, and use a “Sky Crane” to lower the lander safely to the surface. Here’s a JPL infographic showing that in full detail.

Dr. Jennifer Heldmann, planetary scientist, compared it to NASA’s “gymnastics” moment where they had to stick the landing. NASA exobiologist Tori Hoehler spoke to the search for other worlds with life.

In the end the lander touched down, and you could see the joy evident and not just at Mission Control, either. The EDL systems that made the landing possible were designed and tested here at NASA Ames. Engineers justifiably were psyched that the years of work they had invested in making the Curiosity landing succeed paid off.

Check out this artist rendering of the touchdown on Mars.

For more information from NASA, check out its Mars Mission section on the site. Here’s the Participate link from JPL and NASA.

Love this JPL infographic.

Follow the lander’s tweets @MarsCuriosity.