Curiosity’s 1-Ton Touchdown

The Mars rover will rely on dead reckoning and radar to land on the Red Planet

2 min read
Illustration of the steps planned in the Mars rover landing.
Illustration: John MacNeill

On 6 August, NASA’s robotic rover Curiosity is scheduled to reach the end of its eight-month journey to Mars and begin its high-stakes descent down to the surface of the Red Planet. In 7 nail-biting minutes, the spacecraft must transform a 5.9-kilometer-per-second approach into a soft landing near the foot of the Martian equatorial mountain Aeolis Mons. And with a 14-minute communications lag between Mars and Earth, Curiosity’s computer will have to perform the feat all on its own. [For minute-by-minute details on the landing, click on the illustration at right.]

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Two men fix metal rods to a gold-foiled satellite component in a warehouse/clean room environment

Technicians at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems facilities in Redondo Beach, Calif., work on a mockup of the JWST spacecraft bus—home of the observatory’s power, flight, data, and communications systems.


For a deep dive into the engineering behind the James Webb Space Telescope, see our collection of posts here.

When the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) reveals its first images on 12 July, they will be the by-product of carefully crafted mirrors and scientific instruments. But all of its data-collecting prowess would be moot without the spacecraft’s communications subsystem.

The Webb’s comms aren’t flashy. Rather, the data and communication systems are designed to be incredibly, unquestionably dependable and reliable. And while some aspects of them are relatively new—it’s the first mission to use Ka-band frequencies for such high data rates so far from Earth, for example—above all else, JWST’s comms provide the foundation upon which JWST’s scientific endeavors sit.

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