Mars Science Laboratory Sky Crane: Cool or Crazy?

The Mars Science Laboratory rover is gently lowered to the Martian surface... we hope (NASA)
The Mars Science Laboratory rover is gently lowered to the Martian surface... we hope (NASA)

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

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6 thoughts on “Mars Science Laboratory Sky Crane: Cool or Crazy?”

  1. I’m still confused why we’re still building $1.9B one-shot expendable devices for extraterrestrial exploration. Why haven’t we developed by now a common platform, bus, and set of instrument packages so that we can mix and match them, build 100 smaller rovers for the same price, and send them all kinds of different paces? I’m always reminded of the quote from the movie Contact regarding government contracts: “Why build one when you can build two for twice the price?”

    Do you think we’ll ever get to the point where interplanetary probes are “modular” and have some hope of getting mass production going? I mean, it’s happened already for communications satellites…

  2. To my understanding, the advantage of the sky crane option is that you save the trouble of egress of a 700kg from a landed platform. Also, the MSL rover is so big that it probably would not fit inside the same Mars entry capsule if using a Phoenix-like configuration, so you’d also need a bigger launcher!

  3. @De Bunker:-

    You are totally correct, and this is the gist of the problem I have with the current mindset for the exploration of Mars. We are ploughing huge amounts of cash (well, huge amounts by science funding standards) into robotic explorers that stand next-to-no chance of finding life on Mars (in my personal opinion). We need to direct this $2 billion into the foundations of a small manned exploratory mission to the planet (and yes, it can be done). A human on the Martian surface in 5-minutes can 100× the science a robotic rover can do in a year. If there’s life on the surface, a human exploratory mission will find it. A rover will roll over it without noticing.

    It’s time to stop sending toys to Mars. We know what’s there, we know what we are capable of. If we are serious about colonizing Mars, it’s about time we put some serious effort into getting there!

    As I said, when I get some time, I want to finish this article, it’s going to be fun 🙂

    @Steve:- You’re right. But I’d argue that the MSL is simply too big for this. Robotic missions should be small, cheap and easy alternatives to manned exploration. The MSL is none of the above (although it is a damn sight cheaper than sending man to Mars, as far as robotic missions go, this one ain’t cheap!)

    Thank for stopping by!!

    Cheers, Ian

  4. Making science part of your weekly schedule will not only help your child's analytical skills, it will also give you one on one time with them. If you do not think that you have time in your already busy routine, here are 5 ways to make weekly science projects part of your routine.

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