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Monday, August 6, 2012

MSL Monday

Okay folks, time to take a break from those Olympics (as exciting as they are) to learn about the OTHER gold medal winner of the day.  Warning--If you aren't ready to completely geek-out right now, it's probably a good time for you to click back to the Track & Field events.

You may know it as Curiosity, but here in the industry it's known as the Mars Science Laboratory, or simply MSL.  MSL landed in the Gale Crater on Mars last night after what has become known as one of the most complicated space vehicle maneuvers EVER.  At a net weight of 1 ton (just a couple hundred pounds less than the weight of my hunnie's Toyota Corolla), travelling through the Martian atmosphere (which is less than 1% the density of Earth), MSL needed a variety of mechanisms to complete a safe landing Sunday night.  After passing through the thin atmosphere, MSL deployed its supersonic parachute (just like its rover predecessors).  As it descended, MSL separated from its heat shield.  The separation of the heat shield allowed the MSL instruments to begin taking readings (tracking speed, altitude...etc) which is imperative to the vehicle knowing when to start the next phase of the landing maneuver.  Remember what I said...the chute alone is not enough to slow down MSL in the Martian atmosphere.  So when the instruments detect MSL at an altitude of 1.1 miles, it ignites 8 thruster engines (imagine 8 high powered jet packs).  These thruster do just what they sound like they do--thrust the vehicle upwards (as well as left and right) to assist is slowing the vehicle further as it descends.  After the thrusters ignite, the parachute separates from MSL (because at this point it is just 100 pounds of dead weight).  Don't get too eager though, because MSL can't land yet.  The thrusters kick up so much dust as MSL descends that if it rode them all the way to the ground none of MSL's instruments would be able to function properly, as they could be fatally damaged by dust particles.  Que in the Sky Crane (I get chills just saying that out loud).  Doesn't that sound cool?  At approximately 65 feet above the ground, MSL ejected from the thruster deck and dropped towards the ground (still attached to the thruster deck by cables).  Its like the time in that one movie where that one guy hangs from they crane over the sky scraper with a conveniently located cable, waiting for the helicopter to fly by and pick him up.  Curiosity the new Tom Cruise...I think so!  As the MSL dropped down on the Sky Crane, its wheels were deployed, and after this series of maneuvers it slowed to a speed near zero and gently landed on its wheels on the surface of the Martian crater.  Pretty amazing, right?!  Engineers, scientists, astronomers, and plenty of other geeks spent the last 8 years planning this event (and thinking up preventative measures for every possible thing that could go wrong).  Please take a moment to process that you are looking at the result of all their hard work, knowledge and technological innovation...this is no movie set, it's Mars Baby! 
 I applaud you for making it through this super long post.  If your hip (hipper than me), log into that Tweeter account and look for #MSL.  So glad to be a part of this industry and that I was able to celebrate the real gold medal winner with my hunnie and co-workers at a NASA landing party last night.  It was a shining moment for America and the World. 

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