The next NASA rover mission to the Red Planet will be the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) set for a 2009 launch. This mission will incorporate the biggest rover ever to be sent to the Martian surface, the MSL is the size of a small car and it will carry out a vast number of experiments in the hope of finding evidence for life (again).* This ambitious mission has a big price tag of $1.9 billion, so NASA will want to avoid any chance of “doing a Beagle” and ripping Mars a new impact crater.**
So, with this unprecedented mission comes an unprecedented way of lowering it to the Martian surface. Sure, you have your obligatory drogue parachute, you even have a few rocket bursts to soften the touch-down (along the lines of this year’s Phoenix powered landing), but the MSL will also have a “sky crane” to help it out (in a not-so-dissimilar way to the lowering of the descending Mars Exploration Rovers in 2004, only more awesome).
To be honest, I’m as enthusiastic about this plan as I was when I found out that Phoenix would use a jetpack after freefalling the height of two Empire State Buildings (i.e. “are you mad??“)… but then again, what would I know? It looks like the powered landing worked out pretty well for Phoenix…
The MSL has had a few bumps along the road to Mars already. With budget overruns and rumours that the mission may be delayed till 2011 (costing an additional $300 million), there are the obvious predictions that the MSL might never happen. But construction is going well and the mission appears to tick all the right boxes should it need additional budget checks to be signed (i.e. “We’re looking for life on Mars.” “Really? Sounds cool, here’s some cash.”).*
But then I watch the NASA animation chronicling the MSL re-entry, descent and landing. Much like the horrible sense of foreboding I had for the “Seven Minutes of Terror” video NASA released prior to the Phoenix landing; I looked at the MSL video and thought, “that’s never going to work!” Take a look for yourself. Pay special attention to the rocket powered “sky crane” that will carefully lower the Mini Cooper-sized robot to the ground:
It looks awesome, but I just hope NASA hasn’t overcomplicated an already complicated Mars landing. Perhaps the bouncy, airbag landing is a thing of the past, but I still think the Mars Expedition Rovers did it best:
*You may note some sarcasm above when mentioning the “search for life on Mars” – whilst I believe this is a noble effort, I have a few frustrations with the way in which we are doing it… but I’ll save that for the special article I’m preparing for publication soon…
**Forgive the Beagle 2 humour. I am still sad the UK (and my home country) lost our one and only chance at Martian fun, but I couldn’t resist. Sorry.
Inspired by: Gizmodo