Nestled below the foothills of the
For a Californian campus, it is all very laid-back - on most occasions. On 5 August last year, however, JPL was far from being a peaceful place. Indeed, it was in tumult. Thousands of anxious scientists and engineers had gathered to track the fate of the Curiosity Mars rover, the most sophisticated interplanetary probe in history, which was now about to plunge toward the surface of the Red Planet after a journey of 354 million miles.
All missions have their nerve-racking moments, of course. Curiosity's case was special, however, because of the vast numbers of people involved. A decade earlier,
Just selecting a site for the giant rover's landing had proved a major headache, for example. More than 60 places were considered by mission staff, a list from which Gale Crater - near the Martian equator - was eventually selected. It is deep, boulder-strewn and has strong drafts of air sweeping up from its floor. "That made it a difficult place to land in," admits
At the centre of Gale,
In the past, US space engineers had adopted the bouncy castle approach to putting their rovers on Mars. A robot vehicle was secured inside a bag which was inflated during descent so that it simply bounced over the surface until it came to a standstill. For Curiosity, this was not an option. Five times bigger than its predecessors, it would have required an airbag so big, the stresses of descent would have ripped its fabric apart. Similarly, landers that use legs were considered too unstable to settle on Mars.
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