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NASA scientists to feel '7 minutes of terror.' Now you can too!

July 21, 2012|By Amina Khan | Los Angeles Times
  • Screenshot of the popular YouTube video "7 Minutes of Terror" by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, depicting the entry of Curiosity rover into the Mars atmosphere.
Screenshot of the popular YouTube video "7 Minutes of Terror"… (Jet Propulsion Laboratory…)

In case JPL’s epic video titled "Seven Minutes of Terror," accompanied by a dramatic musical score, didn’t drive home the risks of Mars rover Curiosity’s harrowing plummet to the Red Planet’s surface, you can now enjoy the ride yourself — and get behind the proverbial wheel — virtually.

NASA has teamed up with Microsoft to create a Kinect game based on those final few minutes. Players have to keep the spacecraft on target and properly land it using the as-yet-untested Sky Crane — before they run out of fuel. Turns out it might not be as easy at it looks.

“NASA’s pushing the envelope for public engagement with the Mars Science Laboratory landing,” said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program, at a NASA news conference this week.

In case you haven’t seen the video, now’s the time to have a look-see. During the seven minutes in question, the rover will have to slow from 13,000 miles an hour to a full stop — no easy feat. Among other steps, the maneuver involves jettissoning some weight on the spacecraft to kick it into the right angle, deploying a supersonic parachute and casting off the heat shield. Then, some 100 or so meters above the planet's rocky surface, a hovercraft-like ‘descent stage’ will lower the rover the rest of the way to the ground by using cables, which are then cut, allowing the stage to hurl itself away to a safe distance.

Those last few steps are far more complicated looking than the airbags that allowed the smaller rovers Spirit and Opportunity – launched in 2004 – to bounce safely onto the surface.

But the Mars Science Laboratory rover, nicknamed Curiosity, is simply too heavy for that system. It would splat on the surface with such airbags. So engineers had to come up with a completely new system, and the Sky Crane was their solution.

Sky Crane is important because, if successful, it could become the template for missions that could bring human beings safely to the Red Planet’s surface. 

At a NASA news conference this week, Danielle Dallas Roosa, granddaughter of Apollo 14 astronaut Stuart Roosa, waved her arms and shifted from foot to foot as she attempted to maneuver the Kinect spacecraft through the narrow "landing corridor" sketched in space, successfully lowering it to the surface with the Sky Crane maneuver just as she ran out of fuel. Roosa hopped in happy victory as the soundtrack's drums thundered in the background.

“Families can get a taste of the daring that’s involved in just landing this mission on the surface,” McCuistion explained. “It’s going to be very similar to the way the team actually is going to do that." 

"In a way,” he added, after a few of those seated laughed at the comparison.

For those of you out there with Kinect systems, the game is free on Xbox Live Marketplace.

Follow me on Twitter @aminawrite.

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