The most advanced mission yet to Mars is about to make the most perilous descent ever to the surface of the Red Planet, and a Lenexa teenager will be right in the middle of the excitement.
Clara Ma will be a special guest at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., for the landing early Monday, her stomach full of butterflies along with those of the engineers and the scientists behind the $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory.
Clara and her family were invited because she wrote the winning essay and gave the name Curiosity to the latest Martian rover.
She has seen it being built and she even got to write her name inside it with a marker pen. She experienced the thrill of seeing it blast off last November from Cape Canaveral.
But now, more than ever, everything is on the line.
“With the landing, you finally get to see all of the emotions and the culmination of years and years of hard work,” said Clara, 15, anticipating the anxiety in the control room. “It’s got to be really, really nerve-wracking. I don’t think I’ll feel the full extent of it until I’m there.”
The plan for Curiosity’s descent is like something from Rube Goldberg. JPL engineer Adam Steltzner concedes in an online NASA video: “It looks crazy.”
Engineers have candidly dubbed the maneuver “seven minutes of terror.”
That’s about how long it should take from the time the spacecraft hits the top of the thin Martian atmosphere at about 13,200 mph to when it comes softly to rest — if everything works — inside a giant crater near the planet’s equator. It will take 14 minutes for the signal of success to reach Earth. It is expected at 12:31 a.m. Central time Monday. That will be midafternoon local time on Mars.
Previous rovers have been small enough to parachute down and bounce to a stop inside inflated cocoons. But Curiosity is the size of a compact car. It weighs almost a ton and carries more than 10 times the mass of scientific instruments as the previous rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. Engineers had to come up with a better way to protect it during landing.
An angled descent with decelerating rockets will slow the craft to about 1,000 mph, with the heat shield reaching 1,600 degrees. Next, the largest and strongest supersonic parachute ever used will deploy. The heat shield will separate when the craft is plummeting about 370 mph. Then Curiosity, still within a protective shell, will be further slowed by eight rocket thrusters.
So far, the descent is a conventional one. Then it gets tricky. An innovative “sky crane” will lower Curiosity on 21-foot-long tethers that are supposed to disengage immediately when the rover, with its wheels deployed, touches ground.
That’s the plan, which Steltzner says is “the result of reasoned, engineering thought.”
But nobody in the control room in Pasadena will relax until the sweet signal comes through that Curiosity has landed.
“You never know what’s going to happen,” said Clara.
Mars exploration has come a long way since twin Viking landers in 1976 prompted the late Ray Bradbury, author of “The Martian Chronicles,” to comment that there
life on the Red Planet — extensions of our eyes and our hands.
The Mars Pathfinder mission in 1998 delivered the small, plucky rover Sojourner. The larger Spirit and Opportunity rovers landed in 2003, and Opportunity continues to transmit data years after its expiration date.
Curiosity will be able to communicate with Earth with the help of three orbiting craft, NASA’s Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance and the European Space Agency’s Mars Express.
But there have been notable failures. The $328 million Mars Climate Orbiter was lost on arrival in 1999 due to an embarrassing failure to convert some measurements to metric. The Mars Polar Lander that same year crashed during descent.
If Curiosity is successful, it will have documented everything beautifully.
The craft is equipped with high-definition video cameras, including one that will produce a full-color view of the wild ride to the surface, which NASA says will “give fans worldwide an unprecedented sense of riding a spacecraft to a landing on Mars.”
Those images will not be available immediately. And if the descent doesn’t work, we’re unlikely to ever see anything.
“I’ll either be really, really, really happy or ,” said Clara, “well, not disappointed, because I think, even if the mission fails and even if the landing isn’t successful, there are so many important things that have happened throughout this whole process of building Curiosity and researching and just coming up with ideas for instruments.”
Curiosity’s mission is not to find life on Mars but to determine if the planet ever had the ingredients of life. Microbial organisms are presumed to require water, carbon and an energy source. The rover, which has been likened to a robotic geochemist, has 10 scientific instruments. It can collect and analyze rock, soil and air samples.
The landing spot was chosen because it is near a three-mile-high mountain of rock strata that should offer Curiosity a wealth of geologic samples stretching back to the early history of Mars. Curiosity will be powered by plutonium instead of solar panels that can be covered with Martian dust. That should allow Curiosity to last at least a full Martian year, or 687 Earth days.
Clara was a sixth-grader at Sunflower Elementary School when she finished a class assignment early and decided to enter a contest she had read about in a magazine. NASA was looking for a name for its next Martian rover. Clara suggested Curiosity because, she wrote, “it is an everlasting flame that burns in everyone’s mind.”
Her essay was one of nine finalists out of more than 9,000 submitted, and it won in an online poll.
Clara is now preparing for her sophomore year at Shawnee Mission East High School, where she intends to take science courses until she graduates, and beyond.
She is partial to physics.
Clara’s 14-year-old sister, Renny, and her parents, Lisheng Cao and Frank Ma, accompanied her to JPL for the landing. Clara’s schedule was packed with activities, including making an educational film for kids. She also explored a treasured dream of scoring an internship at JPL.
Clara said the scientists and engineers at JPL have always made her feel welcome. All the top brains signed the matte surrounding a color photograph of Mars for her.
“Something like this is probably never going to happen to me again, so I just want to enjoy every single moment,” said Clara. “It’s going to be watching history, and I’m going to be a part of it.”