“Six Minutes of Terror” – the challenges and rewards of landing robotic spacecraft on Mars.

Friday 12 February 2021 at 6.00pm, at the Presbyterian Community Centre, 91 Tenby Street, Wanaka.
Dr Brian Pollard.
Cost – $5 per person.

Robotic landing on Mars has long been viewed as one of the most challenging engineering endeavours in space exploration.
The sequence from entry into Mars’ atmosphere to landing takes about 6 minutes, but with a 20 minute radio signal delay, there no possibility of ground intervention; each lander must safely navigate to the surface on its own.  Mars presents unique challenges, from extreme heating in the atmosphere, parachutes designed for the thin Martian atmosphere, novel methods to touch down softly and safely, all while navigating surface hazards like craters and rocks.  Historically, less than half of the international attempts have been successful.

In 2021, two very different landers arrive at the red planet:  the first Chinese attempted landing (Tianwen-1) is planned to occur mid-year, while the car-sized NASA Perseverance rover attempts to land on 18 February.  Learning from past attempts, each has a unique way to overcome the landing challenges.

In this talk, I’ll discuss my own experience in the history of robotic Mars landings, and the unique ways engineers have overcome some of the significant engineering challenges, with some particular observations from 2012’s fascinating Curiosity mission, the precursor to Perseverance.  I’ll also touch on the future of both international and commercial space missions to Mars, both robotic and crewed, and the implications for both space exploration and our day-to-day life on Earth.

Bio:  Dr. Brian Pollard spent 19 years at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory working on, among other things, a wide diversity of Mars landings, beginning with the Mars Exploration Rovers in 2003 up through the successful Curiosity “Sky-crane” landing in 2012.  Although he left JPL in 2017, he continues to work with international agencies and commercial companies on the development of instruments for space, earth, and underwater exploration.