What to Expect After Curiosity Lands
August 6, 2012 • 12:04AM

This article is outdated. The rover has landed successfully and the first images can be found here: http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/multimedia/raw/

Assuming a safe landing for the Mars Science Laboratory, Curiosity, at the Earth-received-time of 1:31 AM August 6th, EDT (14 minutes earlier on Mars) it could be hours before nervous scientists and engineers know that it is safe. The Rover itself does not carry an antenna that can transmit any but the most basic information back to Earth, and in the midst of the entry and landing phase, Earth will fall below the horizon, leaving Curiosity unable to communicate directly with the home planet. Curiosity will depend upon the Mars Odyssey orbiter to relay data and images to Earth. These will be sent in real time, which is possible only when Odyssey's orbit brings it over the landing site. NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is in an orbit which will allow it to only record data and transmit it back later, from storage.

The first images the Rover will acquire will be black-and-white, low-resolution pictures, taken by the hazard avoidance cameras, designed to prevent the Rover from endangering its mission. The next images to arrive later in the day, will have been acquired, for the first time, as the spacecraft descended to the surface. August 7th could see the first color views of the planet. It could take days of check-out before the 7-foot-tall mast is deployed, and color panoramic pictures are taken of the landing site.

This is the most adventurous and high-risk landing sequence NASA has designed to land on Mars. From its peak speed of 13,000 miles per hour, Curiosity will be slowed to about 1,000 miles per hour by the drag produced by Mars' atmosphere. Then, a huge parachute will deploy, to continue slowing it down. At about one mile above the surface, small engines will fire toward the ground to slow it down further, and when the craft is tens of feet above Mars' surface, it will be lowered down on cables from the descent stage, in what is described as a Sky Crane, and will gently touch down on the surface, at 1.7 mph.