One of the biggest unknowns for the Mars Science Lab — a.k.a Curiosity — is the landing system, called the Sky Crane, which has never been used before for a spacecraft landing on another planet. It is similar to a sky crane heavy-lift helicopter, and it works like this: after a parachute slows the rover’s descent toward Mars, a rocket-powered backpack will lower the rover on a tether during the final moments before landing. This method allows landing a very large, heavy rover on Mars (instead of the airbag landing systems of previous Mars rovers).
The MSL team conducted a drop test of the Sky Crane, and you can see how it worked in the video, above.
Curiosity will also use a new high-precision entry, descent, and landing (EDL) system that will place it in a 20 kilometer (12 mile) landing ellipse, as opposed to the 150 kilometer by 20 kilometer (about 93 miles by 12 miles) landing ellipse of the landing systems used by the Mars Exploration Rovers.
Curiosity will be over five times as heavy as and carry over ten times the weight of scientific instruments as the Spirit and Opportunity rovers. Curiosity is scheduled for launch in November 2011 and then will land on Mars in August 2012.
And don’t forget, you can watch live as engineers build the MSL, on the “Curiosity Cam”