The Flying Sky Crane
In designing the most complex landing ever attempted in space, the team have had to go out on a limb, staking their reputations on a system that has
never been used before.
Adam Stelzner "It's so ambitious. It's so audacious. It's so unconventional. It doesn't feel like there's a lot of shelter. You can say, 'Oh,
I'm doing what they did before and it just didn't work out, I didn't get lucky.' No, we're not doing what we did before. We're doing something
completely novel, hanging it way out there. You feel exposed."
As chief architect of Curiosity's a landing sequence, Adam Stelzner has gone through each part of it over and over in his head. But for now, it only
exists in his imagination. And in this NASA animation.
Adam Stelzner "We show up at this near six-kilometres-a-second speed. We burn a hole in the sky of Mars for about 100 km long. They start out at 6 km a
second, and we're still going about a kilometre a second. We're not slowing down very much, because there's not enough atmosphere to help us out. So
eventually we have to pop a parachute. That slows down more. But still not enough. It takes is down to about 100 metres a second. 200 miles an hour,
almost. You don't want to hit the surface of Mars like that. So, about a couple of kilometres from the surface, we'd say it is time to look for the
surface with our radar. And once we've seen it, we take this great leap of faith. And cut ourselves free, like our rockets and start our descent
to the surface. We slow ourselves all the way down, and then, 20 m above the surface, we do this kind of crazy thing… Called the sky crane
manoeuvre. The average person on the street thinks it's crazy. Even the team that's working it, sometimes we think it's crazy. The strange thing
is, it's actually the result of reasoned engineering thought."
Six days from now, the team hope that Curiosity will perform this unlikely manoeuvre. Back on Earth, they will be waiting for the message they
have all dreamed of… It's safely down.
The purpose behind all this daredevil engineering is to send the biggest payload of scientific equipment ever to leave Earth to uncover the
secrets of Mars. Its the latest step in mankind's love affair with this curious red light in the night sky. Ever since Galileo built his first
telescope, astronomers professional and amateur alike have peered through their lenses at the red planet.
Curiosity's planetary scientist Ashwin Vasavada has shared this fascination since he was a boy.
Ashwin Vasavada "Looking at Mars through a telescope, you can see some wonderful things. You can see the planet, you can see the polar caps, come
and go with the seasons. I love looking through telescopes, but really, they're almost like using a record player for someone who grew up
with the Internet."
In 1976, we've moved beyond mere telescopes. When the Viking space probe beamed back the first-ever images from the surface of Mars, it
inspired a whole generation of space scientists.
Ashwin Vasavada "This image is an image taken by the Viking Lander in 1976, and it kind of is a special image for me, because I saw this
image in a book I was reading as a young kid. And it's the first time I really noticed that planets were other worlds you could stand on a
planet, look out and see rocks and you could walk off the horizon of the image you looking at, and you wonder what's across that hill.
It just blew me away, and maybe is the moment I became a planetary scientist."
The Viking mission tapped into the public's fascination with Mars. It was inspired by one of the most intriguing questions in science. Are we alone?
Ashwin Vasavada "It's about searching for life in the universe, it's about asking this profound question of whether we're alone,
whether we're all that there is. And the only way we can do that, even in this technological age, is just a stepping out to our nearest
neighbour planet, the one next furthest out from the sun, and asking the question there. But really, it's going to tell us this
profound reality, whether we're alone or we're not."
NASA's Viking mission was hugely ambitious. It was their first ever attempt to land robotic probes on the surface of Mars. And it was going to
search for life itself.
Ashwin Vasavada "The Viking Landers but equipped with these state-of-the-art biological laboratories and they scooped up soil and analysed
it. They tried to feed any microbes that would be in the soil and do very sophisticated experiments to detect life."
The delight of landing safely and receiving these extraordinary pictures was followed by what seemed to be an incredible discovery. Initial
observations suggested that they had detected microbial life in the Martian soil. But as the euphoria subsided and the scientific data was
analysed, and new realisation dawned. Viking had, in fact, failed to find life on Mars.
Ashwin Vasavada "The results were either negative or just ambiguous and it made us realise that it's not going to be this easy."