back to article NASA's nuclear Mars tank prepares for high pucker-factor landing

NASA's Mars Science Laboratory team is working on a landing procedure for Red Planet rover Curiosity, due to touchdown on the dust world this weekend. Curiosity landing infographic A little to the right... bit more... bit more... bit more... perfect! The US space agency said its flight team had started going through the …


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  1. rvt
    Thumb Up

    Landing like a BOSS

    If Nasa is going to pull this landing off, then it's one hell of a job!

    One could only wish there was a camera that could capture the event up close...

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Landing like a BOSS

      They have their reasons, but my: What an enormously complicated way of landing something! So much to go wrong.

      Fingers crossed.

      I'm on the Curiosity twitter feed. I hope it says "Weeeeeeeeee" during it's hypersonic decent.

    2. Captain Scarlet Silver badge

      Re: Landing like a BOSS

      If not then we Nuke Mars and might start a war of nerves with the Mysterons :S

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Landing like a BOSS

        I think I would rather hope to land like a clamp stand.

  2. The Axe


    But it doesn't have a microphone so we can't hear the invisible martians trying to contact us.

    1. Pete 2 Silver badge

      Re: Mic

      I doubt it would matter. Does anyone know how a Martian would say "I don't care who you are, get your buggy off my roof"

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: Mic

        @Pete 2

        Yes. In Martian, that would be "Git off ma laaaaawwn!!" followed by a bright green flash and the sound of "OOOOLLLaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!

  3. Ramiro

    Why the sky crane?

    Why did they have to use the sky crane? It's not like the russians have not landed *tanks* using rockets just to slow down their rate of descent.


    1) BALLS OF STEEL needed for tank crew, if they land inside it (I certainly hope not);

    2) Curiosity is a wee bit more delicate than a russian tank;

    3) I think the video says the retro rockets are "_almost_ perfectly reliable".

    1. Christoph

      Re: Why the sky crane?

      The tanks will still work after the landing rocket blows up dust all over them. They reckoned that Curiosity probably wouldn't, so they keep the rockets on the crane away from the ground.

      1. InsaneLampshade

        Re: Why the sky crane?

        Isn't it going to get dust blown all over it anyway by just being on Mars?

        1. Captain DaFt

          Re: Why the sky crane?

          "Isn't it going to get dust blown all over it anyway by just being on Mars?"

          Yes, but that'll be dust uncontaminated by hot rocket exhaust. Wouldn't do to have the sensors all covered with foreign (from Earth) materail that might throw off the readings.

    2. Tank boy

      Re: Why the sky crane?

      Those weren't tanks, they were Armored Personnel Carriers (APC's), which are much lighter. The Soviets did a lot of airborne drops with the crews inside, with mixed results as you may imagine. The concept of dropping troops/equipment by air is known as "Vertical Envelopment", and the Soviets/Russians suck highly at it.

      1. TeeCee Gold badge

        Re: Why the sky crane?

        Actually the Red Army did drop tanks like that, there are other videos.

        It all goes back to some conflict in the Middle East, where the Soviets did a lot of posturing about supporting their side of the shitfight, but never actually tipped up. Time magazine (I think) wrote a detailed article entitled "The Bear Can't Fly", on how the Soviet's lacked the ability to move their armies and kit by air.

        This created a Soviet backlash, resulting in those methods of delivering armour and those enormous Antonov freighter aircraft. Fortunately the Soviet empire went titsup before the An-225 became operational, or the world could have become rather interesting.

        IIRC NATO didn't think that they "sucked highly at it", but were rather worried by this development.....

        1. imanidiot Silver badge

          Re: Why the sky crane?

          The An-225 was never seriously considered to be an operational military freighter. That's what it's "little brother" the AN-124 was designed for. The 225 was a complicated yet delicate beast, specifically designed to carry Buran and parts for it's Energia rocket. While other uses were studied, afaik there has never been a serious consideration to put it to broader military use. (which would also be why they never even planned to build more than 2 of them. The second and as of yet incomplete fuselage is reported to still be in a factory somewhere to be completed for use by the Antonov heavy lift company)

  4. Dan Paul

    NASA have you got your Metric Conversions figured out? Where's the ROTM people?

    The title says it all.

    On the other hand, I 'd hoped for someone to remember Keith Laumer's BOLO stories about intelligent tanks. It's been a long time since anyone used the ROTM acronym. So we now have a nuclear powered tank on Mars... What could go wrong?

    BTW Mars has an atmosphere, however thin, someone COULD HEAR YOU SCREAM!

    1. TeeCee Gold badge

      Re: NASA have you got your Metric Conversions figured out? Where's the ROTM people?

      I see your "What could go wrong?" and raise you a "Who gives a fuck?". It can become intelligent and hate us all it likes, we can just sit over here and take the piss out of it 'til it's nuclear batteries run flat.

      "I will DESTROY you ALL!".

      "Yeah, you and what interplanetary spacecraft sunshine?"


      "Destroy your Momma."


      Next week's El Reg competition: Most cutting taunt to direct at an insane, intelligent, human-hating, nuclear powered tank stranded on Mars.

  5. JDX Gold badge


    So do we bet it lands OK, or that they stuff it?

    Cast your prediction by the vote buttons...

    1. Anonymous Custard

      Re: Bets

      My bet is everything going perfectly until right at the end, when the skycrane cable fails to separate from the rover. Thence the Curiosity ends up dragging its crane around for the next few months by its ropes, or is virtually tethered to the spot like a yard-dog.

      One does have to wonder what happened to KISS strategies in this day and age?

  6. Dave 126 Silver badge

    For those who haven't seen it yet...

    BBC's Horizon special, with interviews of the humans involved, currently on iPlayer. Being Horizon, it features too much footage of the team members going about their day (surfing, driving through desert, etc) and not too much in the way of diagrams, illustrations or renderings.

    If anyone else here has seen it - Why are the wheels on the Earthbound-clone so torn and mashed up? The camera keeps falling on them, but no explanation is offered... Is the damage purely down to the thing weighing more here than on its intended operational environment, or what?

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Who put those little black marks on the first picture? Someone's got hold of paint and hit the paint brush just before they pressed "save". :(

  8. Herby

    Yes, it is a little scary!

    Even the head of JPL (Elachi) is a bit worried. In a talk I attended a week and a half ago, he went through all the things that "need" to work (there were lots of them!), and talked about the energy that needs to be dissipated for it all to work out. The big problem is that the atmosphere on Mars while there isn't much. It is enough to cause problems (thus the heat shield) and for slowing things down a little bit (parachute that deploys at supersonic speeds), it isn't enough to make a parachute landing like a sky diver here on earth (who can just walk away). Thus the sky crane. The interesting bit of trivia was that the rocket part of the sky crane that detaches and crashes somewhere isn't going to be looked at. It contains some nasty rocket fuels (hydrazine) and may contaminate the nice sensitive instruments the rover has.

    The mock-up Elachi brought with him to the talk was in fact a quite large vehicle, six wheels and everything. He also noted that the holes in the wheels to get rid of the dust had the pattern of 'JPL' in morse code. Very cool!

    Yes, I did get my picture taken next to the mock-up (it was full size).

  9. Magani

    I guess it IS rocket science

    So many potential points of failure,

    So little time.

    I wish it luck.

    1. regorama

      Re: I guess it IS rocket science

      I see lots of interesting possibilities, too. Dangling skycrane cables awfully close to hot rocket exhaust. A martian wind gust or hasty computer maneuver and the rover falls.

      Their mixed use of units in the skycrane video also seems a bit suspicious. 20m above ground, the skycrane deploys a 6ft long cable. Or was it 20ft long, 6m above?

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "Once it reaches the surface, Curiosity is expected to wander about for one Martian year (98 Earth weeks), though previous rovers have lasted much longer than their initial mission's duration."

    Am I right in thinking that, due to the half life of the plutonium they use to power the thing (via the thermal effects of alpha decay) clocking in at some 90 years, given a sufficient safety margin in the designed power use and the option to turn components off/drive around less, that curiosity could feasibly still be driving around Mars in 25 years time?

    1. asdf

      based on

      Based on past history with Pioneer and Voyager crushing life expectancy estimates and they way NASA funding gets cut (so have to make current hardware last) 25 years might even be a low estimate.

    2. imanidiot Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Probably yes

      Also, Curiositys PRIMARY mission objectives span roughly a martian year. There are already secondary and tertiary mission objectives to be completed on a whenever possible basis. Curiositys mission is fully expected to outlast the first martian year, it's just that NASA scientists had to make a list of: Okay, once we got that thing to mars in one peace, what do we REALLY want to know before it might potentially develop a case of electron rot?

      (Also, martian winter is a time when dust storms and such are likely to deposit dust and other contaminants on the bot. Making reliable spectrography and soil sampling more difficult and possibly causing troubles with the robotic arm. Thus why most of those experiments are planned to be completed before the end of it's primary mission)

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Elevator from hell

    We're going DOWN!

    1. Mako

      Re: Elevator from hell

      You secure that shit, Hudson.

      ...and someone wake up Hicks.

  12. saundby
    Thumb Up

    Star Trekkin' across the universe...

    Only goin' forward 'cause we can't find reverse!

    Nice little shout out. I've still got my copy on tape, though Star Dreck is on 45.

  13. Eponymous Cowherd

    Gets this image in my head............

    Of a Martian cat looking up as the rover descends.

    Caption reads "Oh sh...."

  14. johnnymotel

    I want my....

    live blog , pleeeze El Reg.

    I still recall what I was doing when they landed on the moon, I want that experience again.

  15. Graham Bartlett

    Forward planning

    Hang on, let's get this straight. They spent $2.5billion getting this thing designed, built and sent over to Mars. And they're only just now thinking about planning their landing procedure?!?! Anyone else think this is a bit f*cked up on the planning front?

    1. Chris 244

      Re: Forward planning

      So there's this thing called the Olympics on right now. If you watch closely, some of the athletes can be seen rehearsing their, say, dive routines while waiting on deck to compete. This does not preclude the possibility that the athlete has previously done some small amount of preparation for the event.

  16. Bodestone

    The mars aliens aren't invisible

    They just have good printers:

  17. Ross R

    Updating parameters during the landing

    Last minute changes are somewhat limited. If something unexpected happens, it will be at least 3 minutes before any earthlings know about it. It will then take at least another 3 minutes for any changes to be transmitted to the craft. From entering the atmosphere, to touchdown is less than 7 minutes.

    1. JeffyPooh

      Re: Updating parameters during the landing

      You spelled "14" incorrectly.

      Speed of light from Mars is reportedly 14 minutes (I've not checked the math, but I've seen this signal delay mentioned many times).

      The Curiosity rover will have been already been succesfully-alive or smashed-and-dead for about seven minutes when we Earthlings just receive the signal confirming that it has just touched the outer layers of the wispy-thin atmosphere of Mars.

      They should have named it "Schrödinger's cat".

      1. Chris65

        Re: Updating parameters during the landing

        According to this cnet article ($2.5b-make-or-break-mars-mission/) the distance to mars at the time of curiosity's descent is 154 million miles yielding a round trip time of 27.6 minutes.

  18. Beachrider

    There will be some real-time recording of the landing...

    At one NASA briefing, they were asked WHY getting near-real-time feedback to the USA was so important. They advised that Curiousity will be streaming some kind of monitoring during its descent. He indicated that some video recording was going on, as well.

    On the prospects of a 25-year operation, if any key element (consider the batteries) fails, then SOME or ALL parts of the lander will stop working. The batteries are needed for some of the high-power instruments (Laser, others). NASA will need to get congressional approval at the end of each 'tour'. Cassini is on is fourth (I think) 'tour' around Saturn. Even Voyagers have to be 'renewed' every 3-5 years.

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