This week's Cosmoquest Science Hangout featured Ravi Prakash, Curiosity Entry, Descent, and Landing Systems Engineer. I asked him to take us step-by-step through Curiosity's planned landing, and to explain why and how this will be different (and more precise) than previous landings.
(And if you'd like to experience that landing for yourself: Come to Planetfest, or host your own!)
There were some serious technical difficulties at the start, which made me very discombobulated in the beginning of the broadcast, and a rough few minutes where I thought I was showing a YouTube video that it turned out only Ravi and I could see. I suggest skipping past the first 8 minutes. Then the Hangout died halfway through and I had to restart, which is why there are two videos embedded below. Fortunately, the second half went much more smoothly than the first half!
There are two acronyms you will hear in this Hangout more than once: "MSL," which is the formal name for the Curiosity rover (it now stands for Mars Science Laboratory but used to stand for Mars Smart Lander for reasons you will understand after watching the Hangout); and "EDL," which is short for Entry, Descent, and Landing. Crudely speaking, "Entry" refers to the phase in which Curiosity will be slowed by its aeroshell, the fireball phase; Descent refers to the parachute and rocket-assisted portions; and Landing refers to the skycrane maneuver, after which Curiosity will be standing on its wheels and more or less ready to roll.
If you would like a very detailed but really quite readable explanation of how this will all work, here is a paper that Ravi wrote about it a few years ago. (PDF)
Ravi joined JPL in 2005 as a Systems Engineer in the Entry, Descent, and Landing Systems and Advanced Technologies group. Ravi is currently working on the EDL system for the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft, set to land on Mars on August 5, 2012. Ravi is also leading the Entry, Descent, and Landing effort for the Mars 2018 mission. Ravi has a B.S. in Aerospace Engineering from The University of Texas at Austin, and a M.S. in Aerospace Engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology.