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10.23.2008

"Hanging Six" on Mars

This animation opens with a photo of five members of the Core 'B.U.D.' team -- four men and one woman -- kneeling in front of or standing to the side of the test platform, which is suspended on cables behind them. From there, the animation fades to actual test footage of an engineer in a lab coat beginning the countdown. The footage fades to a stunning, color photo of the golden test spool with the bridles and communications cable wound up tight and ready for release. That image fades to a photo of engineers checking the stability of the platform after a corner of it has come to rest on a mock boulder made of stacked concrete blocks. That photo fades back to the actual test footage, as the engineer counts, 'Five, four, three, two, one, release.' At the sound of the word 'release,' the spool unwinds and lowers the platform from a height of about two stories. The footage then fades to a screen that reads, 'NASA, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology.'
QuickTime Video (12.5 MB)

When it descends through the Martian sky, the Mars Science Laboratory rover will "hang six," riding the Martian wind. The descent stage will lower the rover to the ground using a "Bridle Umbilical Device."

Engineers on the "BUD team" have ridden those winds in their imagination, testing the landing system over and over here on Earth. They built a platform weighing what the rover weighs -- nearly 800 pounds. They dropped it on three cables strong enough to hold the weight yet provide a soft ride. Sometimes, they dropped it on imitation boulders or at an angle. As the cables flew from a golden spool, a braking system slowed them down.

A separate cable shaped like a curly phone cord carried signals back and forth. On Mars, when those signals tell the spacecraft to let go, the rover's six wheels won't be hanging any more. They'll be on the ground, ready to roll.

Image credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech


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