Give me a crash course in . . . the Curiosity Mars Landing


What’s all the fuss about?The Mars science laboratory rover, Curiosity, left Earth in November 2011 and at 6.31am on Monday it’s due to land on Mars. If the mission succeeds, it will be the largest man-made object to land on another planet. It’s about the size of a car, has six wheels and a robotic arm, weighs a tonne and looks a little like Number 5, from the film Short Circuit.

Have we not been on Mars before, or am I thinking of science fiction films?You’re thinking of science fiction films. However, the smaller rovers Spirit and Opportunity successfully visited the red planet in 2004 (before it was touristy). Spirit stopped signalling in 2010 while Opportunity is still operating.

Who’s responsible for this?Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology at Pasadena, which is working for the Nasa Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Or, if you prefer: “science boffins”.

How does it all work?On reaching Mars’s atmosphere, the spacecraft carrying Curiosity will slow from 21,000km/h to 1,700km/h. A rocket-powered “sky crane” will be positioned above the planet’s surface and it will lower Curiosity down on nylon tethers, while nervous “science boffins” bite their nails.

Could it all go wrong?Yes. It’s a tricky operation. They’re trying to get something the size of a car across 560 million kilometres of space into a very specific crater on Mars. There have already been four course corrections since the probe was launched. Furthermore, the team will temporarily lose contact with the rover during the landing and there is talk of “seven minutes of terror” as they wait to see if $2.5 billion worth of time, effort and equipment lands safely.

What will it do there?Curiosity contains the instruments to undertake 10 distinct scientific missions. It will collect and analyse rocks, soil and atmosphere to help establish whether Mars was ever habitable.

It will also take loads of pictures, like the brilliant, metally space tourist it is.

Could Curiosity alert a superior Martian race to our presence and usher in a dark era of interplanetary war?Probably not. Any life on Mars, if it ever existed, is likely to have been microbial and to be long dead.

Should I buy an apartment there like I did in Cape Verde?Although Mars is probably a better location for investment properties than Cape Verde, according to Charles F Bolden Jr, head of Nasa, a manned mission to Mars won’t take place until the 2030s at the earliest.