Self-Motivation
David Goggins
Former Navy Seal
Career Development
Bryan Cranston
Actor
Critical Thinking
Liv Boeree
International Poker Champion
Emotional Intelligence
Amaryllis Fox
Former CIA Clandestine Operative
Management
Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
Learn
from the world's big
thinkers
Start Learning

Seven Minutes of Terror: Engineering the Mars Rover's Impossible Landing

NASA engineer Adam Steltzner is driving his team to attempt the seemingly impossible.

Here's an interesting engineering challenge. Fly an unmanned spacecraft carrying a 2,000 pound rover 300 million miles to Mars. Smash into the planet's extremely thin atmosphere at 13,000 mph, which will light up the craft's heat shield like the sun, reaching temperatures of 1,600 degrees. The atmosphere will slow your craft down to about 1,000 mph, but you will need to figure out a way to eventually slow to zero, jettison the heat shield and simultaneously guide the ship to a safe landing in the constrained space of the Gale crater. 


A supersonic parachute will slow you down to 200 mph, but you're still coming in too hot for a landing. It's time to exercise your pyrotechnic devices, blasting rockets to divert the craft away from the parachute. These rockets can't get too close to the ground because they might create a massive dust cloud and damage the rover's equipment. So a sky crane will have to gently lower the rover to the surface (A so-called 'rover on a rope': is it genius or crazy or a lot of both?). 

This sequence is dramatized in a thrilling video below, which NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab has dubbed the "seven minutes of terror," as it will take seven minutes for the craft to travel from the top of the atmosphere to the surface of the planet. It will take 14 minutes to transmit the signal back to Earth, meaning you will have to wait in agonizing uncertainty for seven minutes, not knowing whether your $2.5 billion mission is a success or failure. 

You give up? No one would blame you. 

Adam Steltzner did not give up. In fact, the NASA engineer has spent the last nine years of his life leading a team to solve this problem. Given the margin for error -- which is zero -- it is a good thing that Steltzner is a cool cat, which is how NPR described him in a recent profile. We are rooting for his efforts to come to fruition early Monday, when the Mars rover is scheduled to complete its nine-month journey. On the other hand, if anything goes wrong in the sequence described above, Steltzner's mission will fail. Like those odds?

Watch the video here:

What's the Big Idea?

The highly complex field of spacecraft engineering, not surprisingly, is clouded with the kind of jargon The Associated Press describes as "a sort of Martian alphabet soup." 

Steltzner's team is responsible for EDL, or Entry, Decent and Landing, the crucial phase of the Curiosity mission outlined in the video above. Steltzner's team had to custom design a landing system for a rover that is five times heavier than previous ones sent to Mars. They also had to contend with the challenge of the Red Planet's extremely thin atmosphere. A new parachute and rocket system had to be custom designed as well. And yet, the team's signature innovation is the way it all works together. 

Therefore, if successful, this mission will be the triumph of both teamwork and leadership. The teamwork involved nearly a decade of tinkering the system's design. The leadership has come from the steady hand of Steltzner, who traded a career in rock n' roll for physics. His former career as a bassist appears to be suiting him well at NASA. In the face of adversity, Steltzner advises his team to keep themselves "like, chill, and focused and not freaking." 

Two out of every three missions to Mars end in failure. Hero or goat, we commend Steltzner for driving his team to attempt the seemingly impossible, and will be inviting him to appear on Big Think. 

As X Prize Founder and space pioneer Peter Diamandis tells us below, every radical breakthrough began as "a crazy idea." The commercial space industry is a perfect example. People didn't want to invest in the idea because they didn't believe it was possible. From a leadership standpoint, Diamandis tells us, you need to make people believe it is possible. 

Watch the video here:

What's the Significance?

The significance of the Curiosity rover mission is twofold. If NASA's team is able to successfully complete this engineering challenge, the landing will be a feat unto itself. Furthermore, if Curiosity isn't consumed in a fireball, the machine will go on to conduct a geological survey of the planet for one Martian year (or 687 Earth days). Its first discovery might be imminent. Curiosity is touching down on the Gale Crater because scientists believe the sediment there will contain evidence that there was once a habitable environment on Mars. 

Recommended:

You can give yourself a front row seat in a video game that resulted from a partnership between NASA and Microsoft called The Mars Rover Landing. The game is available as a free download at Xbox Live. NASA's engineers describe the gaming experience as very similar to what the actual landing will be like. 

Image courtesy of NASA

Follow Daniel Honan on Twitter @Daniel Honan


The “new normal” paradox: What COVID-19 has revealed about higher education

Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?

Photo: Luis Robayo/AFP via Getty Images
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
  • It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
  • COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
Keep reading Show less

Climate change melts Mount Everest's ice, exposing dead bodies of past climbers

Melting ice is turning up bodies on Mt. Everest. This isn't as shocking as you'd think.

Image source: Wikimedia commons
Surprising Science
  • Mt. Everest is the final resting place of about 200 climbers who never made it down.
  • Recent glacial melting, caused by climate change, has made many of the bodies previously hidden by ice and snow visible again.
  • While many bodies are quite visible and well known, others are renowned for being lost for decades.
Keep reading Show less

Creativity: The science behind the madness

Human brains evolved for creativity. We just have to learn how to access it.

Creativity: The science behind the madness | Rainn Wilson, David Eagleman, Scott ...
Videos
  • An all-star cast of Big Thinkers—actors Rainn Wilson and Ethan Hawke; composer Anthony Brandt; neuroscientists David Eagleman, Wendy Suzuki, and Beau Lotto; and psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman—share how they define creativity and explain how our brains uniquely evolved for the phenomenon.
  • According to Eagleman, during evolution there was an increase in space between our brain's input and output that allows information more time to percolate. We also grew a larger prefrontal cortex which "allows us to simulate what ifs, to separate ourselves from our location in space and time and think about possibilities."
  • Scott Barry Kaufman details 3 brain networks involved in creative thinking, and Wendy Suzuki busts the famous left-brain, right-brain myth.

New study explores how to navigate 'desire discrepancies' in long term relationships

With the most common form of female sexual dysfunction impacting 1 in 10 women, this important study dives into how to keep a relationship going despite having different needs and wants in the bedroom.

NDAB Creativity / Shutterstock
Sex & Relationships
  • A new study highlights the difficulties faced by women who struggle with decreased sexual desire, and explains how to navigate desire discrepancies in long-term relationships.
  • Hypoactive sexual desire disorder is one of the most common forms of female sexual dysfunction, impacting an estimated 1 in 10 women.
  • Finding other ways to promote intimacy in your relationship is one of the keys to ensuring happiness on both sides.
Keep reading Show less
Scroll down to load more…
Quantcast