NASA Mars mission gets a helping hand from Europe, in pictures

NASA Mars mission gets a helping hand from Europe, in pictures

Summary: The European Space Agency has given details of how it will track NASA's landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars, a mission that is seeking to gauge the habitability of the planet


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  • Mars Express and MSL

    On 6 August, NASA will land its Curiosity rover on Mars to study whether conditions on the red planet have ever been, or could be in the future, favourable to life.

    The landing is part of its Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission.

    During the rover's descent, the MSL spacecraft will slow its velocity using a parachute, and lower the rover in the final moments of descent using a tether.

    MSL will enter the Martian atmosphere at almost at almost 21,000km per hour, and in seven minutes should decelerate to less than 3.6km per hour.

    The European Space Agency (ESA) will track the mission's progress using the ESA Mars Express orbiter.

    "We began optimising our orbit several months ago, so that Mars Express will have an orbit that... provides good visibility of MSL's planned trajectory," Michel Denis, Mars Express spacecraft operations manager, said in a statement.

    This image shows an artist's impression of the Mars Express orbiter (left) and the MSL mission.

    Image credit: Alex Lutkus

  • The Curiosity rover will be delivered by a 'skycrane'

    The Curiosity rover will be delivered by a 'skycrane', as pictured in this artist's impression.

    The entry, descent, and landing (EDL) phase of the MSL mission will begin when the spacecraft reaches the Martian atmosphere, about 81 miles (131km) above the surface of the Gale crater landing area.

    The spacecraft will then steady its rate of descent with up to eight throttle-controllable rocket engines.

    The rover is connected to the MSL spacecraft during the descent stage by three nylon tethers and by an 'umbilical' cable providing a power and communication connection. Once the rover has landed, the cable and tethers will be separated and the spacecraft flown off.

    Image credit: Alex Lutkus

Topics: Emerging Tech, Nasa / Space

Tom Espiner

About Tom Espiner

Tom is a technology reporter for He covers the security beat, writing about everything from hacking and cybercrime to threats and mitigation. He also focuses on open source and emerging technologies, all the while trying to cut through greenwash.

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1 comment
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  • 8 Rockets are on the Skycrane

    Hmmm...where to begin? The Image 2 caption contains factual bits and pieces but so out of context as to be misleading or wrong. The Skycrane is getting a lot of press due to its complexity and originality, but it is only part of the story.

    If you want the full story, check out:

    The caption skips right from atmospheric entry all the way to the Skycrane deployment. EDL officially begins with the ejection of the cruise-stage (the components that communicated to Earth and steered during the long interplanetary flight) from the aeroshell (capsule made of the backshell and heat-shield). The lion's share of the deceleration (5900 m/s to 400 m/s) is handled by the PICA heatshield, which is steered by shifting the center of mass and tiny pulse-jets. A lot of reporters are overlooking the fact that this is the first time we've ever attempted a precision that steers the MSL during entry to dial in what used to be a landing zone hundreds of kilometers long, to less than 20 (the difference between landing in Connecticut, to landing on Martha's Vineyard, for those of you back East).

    Then, the aeroshell deploys parachutes that slow the vehicle to 80 m/s in the thin Martian atmosphere, jettisoning the shield along the way. Finally, the Curiosity rover and its Skycrane jetpack eject from the capsule and use the jetpack's "eight throttle-controllable rockets" to fly like a helicopter to a standstill 20 m off the ground.

    The three tethers you mention are between Curiosity and the Skycrane, and are what allows it to lower the rover the last 20 meters to the surface while automatically steering to avoid boulders and correct for wind gusts that can reach 90 km/hr. Those gusts very nearly crashed one of Curiosity's little MER forefathers.

    I think there is only one umbilical and no tethers from the "spacecraft" (capsule?) to Curiosity, which get severed when the rover and jetpack eject. Another umbilical goes to the heatshield, but I don't know if it is rigged to the rover or the capsule. The rover actually downloads a lot of telemetry being acquired by the rest of the spacecraft and sensors embedded in its heatshield during the decent and will (hopefully) upload all that information once Curiosity is safe, sound, and operational.