NewsJuly 17, 2012

Seven Minutes of Terror as Curiosity Heads to Mars

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Michael D. Lemonick

By Michael D. Lemonick

Just three weeks from now, on August 6, the most ambitious mission to Mars yet will touch down to begin the next chapter in the exploration of the Red Planet. Its official name is the Mars Science Laboratory, but it will go down in space history by its much friendlier nickname: Curiosity. It’s the latest in an ever-more sophisticated series of self-propelled rovers that have been scooting around Mars since Sojourner landed in the mid-1990s.

The climate connection: Curiosity will be looking for evidence that Mars might have been suitable for life before it lost its heat-trapping atmosphere to space billions of years ago. On Venus, the atmosphere traps too much heat, sending the temperature upward of 800°F. On Mars, the lack of atmosphere keeps things below freezing. On Earth, the temperature is just right for now, although greenhouse gases are now warming the planet to a degree many scientists think could be dangerous.

Before Curiosity can explore, though, it has to land safely — a maneuver engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory call “seven minutes of terror.” This video, narrated by some of those engineers (with appropriately heart-pounding music behind them), makes it very clear why.