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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