with video: '7 minutes of terror': University of Michigan scientists have stake in rover's risky Mars landing
The $2.5 billion "Curiosity" rover mission was designed and orchestrated by a team of more than 1,000 scientists, including two University of Michigan planetary scientists: Sushil Atreya and Nilton Renno.
The rover will land using a rocket-powered "sky crane," a method never before attempted.
To celebrate the landing, and the two U-M professors that helped make it happen, U-M's engineering department is hosting a late-night landing party. From 11:30 p.m. Sunday to 2 a.m. Monday in the space research building on North Campus, attendees can join engineering faculty and watch the NASA live stream of the landing.
NASA plans to live broadcast the landing in public areas across the nation, including Times Square in New York City.
The question the rover is meant to answer is simple: Has there ever been life on Mars? The mission, however, isn't quite as straightforward.
"This is a rather complex mission which is designed to address this big question about the potential of microbial life on Mars, primarily in the past, but possibly even now; today," Atreya said.
The rover was launched inside the capsule tip of an Atlas V rocket in November. Its eight-and-a-half-month journey has been monitored by NASA, whose scientists spent more than 10 years designing the rover and planning its landing.
When the capsule is 78 miles above Mars' surface, it will be traveling at 13,000 miles per hour and be heated to a level of 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit because of the friction of the craft with the Red Planet's atmosphere.
By the time it's a mile from Mars' surface, Curiosity will be traveling at 200 mph.
When the capsule reaches 60 feet above the planet's surface, and slows to 2 mph, a mechanism NASA is calling a "sky crane" will lower the rover to the ground using tethers.
It will be the first time NASA has landed a rover without using a parachute for the full descent.
"The landing itself is risky," explained Atreya. "This is the kind of thing that has never been attempted."
The rover weighs roughly one ton and is the size of a small car. It's powered by plutonium and contains dozens of mechanisms meant to measure everything from the methane in the atmosphere to the presence of organic material in sand. Both methane and organics could indicate the presence of living organisms.
The plutonium could power Curiosity for well more than 100 years, although NASA's nominal mission is planned for 680 days.
Below is a University of Michigan video showing an overview of the Mars Science Laboratory mission, including the "7 minutes of terror" that NASA coined to describe the unprecedented landing plan designed for the mission.