If you watched the live broadcast of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity rover landing on the surface of Mars, you know it was a nail-biter. People all over the world—especially engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and technology firms the world over that had contributed systems and components to the mission—waited with baited breath for the successful completion of a number of critical milestones.
This mission to Mars comprises various phases, including: pre-launch activities; launch; cruise; approach; entry, descent, and landing; first drive; and surface operations.
Thousands of engineers worked on pre-launch activities: selection of the MSL’s final landing site, MSL and Curiosity assembly and testing, shipping the spacecraft from California to Florida for launch, and final assembly and testing at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla.
The launch and cruise phases—lift-off from Earth and voyage through cold, dark space, respectively—involved health checks, maintenance, monitoring and calibration of the spacecraft and its subsystems, attitude correction, navigation, and testing in preparation of entry, descent, and landing.
What follows is a progression of the launch:
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NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory and its Curiosity rover blast off on an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory and its rocket will coast in orbit around Earth before heading to Mars.
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The four solid rocket boosters (SRB) of the Atlas rocket are jettison.
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The nose cone, or fairing, that protected MSL during its flight through Earth’s atmosphere opens and falls away. The first stage rocket ceases and is released to fall into the Atlantic Ocean.
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The second-stage rocket, a Centaur engine, is fired the first time for a duration of seven minutes and puts the vehicle into an elliptical parking orbit around Earth.
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The vehicle is pointed toward Mars, and the second-stage rocket is ignited for the second time for a duration of 8 minutes. The vehicle leaves Earth’s orbit, careening toward Mars at a velocity in excess of 13,200 miles per hour.
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The launch vehicle separates from the Atlas V rocket that boosted it toward Mars. Curiosity sends a signal to Earth; engineers receive data from NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory showing that all systems are operating normally. Curiosity’s approximately eight-month journey to Mars is underway.
This geek, and many others, were glued to the screen as these events unfolded in what was the most intricate unmanned mission to date.