As the Curiosity rover enters the thin Martian atmosphere on Sunday night it will have traveled a total distance of about 352 million miles on the latest NASA mission. Jettisoned from its Atlas V541 launch vehicle, Curiosity must make a completely unassisted descent and landing on Mars, traveling from 13,000 mph to 0 mph, without direct help from personnel on Earth.
NASA Engineer Adam Steltzner explains that it takes 14 minutes for the communications signals to be transmitted the distance from Earth to Mars, meaning once NASA gets confirmation Curiosity has entered Mars' atmosphere, the mission's fate has already been decided -- the rover will already either be safely sitting on Mars, or it will have been destroyed upon entry.
The critical entry, descent, and landing (EDL) maneuvers include a combination of technologies inherited from past NASA Mars missions, as well as exciting new technologies, NASA says. Instead of the familiar airbag landing used during past, far smaller and lighter Mars missions, Mars Science Laboratory will employ a parachute, landing rockets, a hovering sky crane, and other complicated mechanisms to help lower the rover to the surface of the Red Planet.