PASADENA -- Later tonight, a white-and-orange spacecraft, shaped roughly like a chicken pot pie, will come screaming into the Martian atmosphere at 13,200 miles per hour. The fireball surrounding the Mars Science Laboratory craft will reach 3,800 degrees Fahrenheit as it descends, like a controlled meteor on a ballistic path. By 10:31 p.m. Pacific time/1:31 a.m. Eastern time, NASA hopes to hear that it safely slowed to zero MPH in seven minutes of terror, and is ready to explore Mars.
The entry, descent and landing (EDL) of the Mars rover Curiosity is one of the most interesting aspects -- and certainly the most insane part -- of this beefy-armed, laboratory-toting, car-sized explorer. NASA engineers and managers keep saying it's the most complex landing ever attempted on another planet, and that's certainly true. But the Rube Goldberg-esque sky-crane delivery system is neither the most dangerous nor the most risky. It's really the only thing NASA engineers think would work.