A word about automation and robotics: I was at a talk regarding the "state-of-the-state" in automobile (let's say) "smarts". After a demonstration (I don't want to be coy about it, I can't go into details as to what I saw) the statement was made "the biggest problem with automobiles and traffic is the person behind the wheel". Of course this statement implied major changes to our roadways and highways but the point was well taken. Things are a little different than they were during the Apollo missions (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apollo_Guidance_Computer).
Well said, mtripoli. The folks at JPL were given a problem and came up with the best possible solution. It very well may not work, but we will learn a lot in attempting it. If the recent SpaceX mission to the space station is any indication, software verification must have been exacting. As noted earlier, there are plenty of unknowns during the descent. If we fail, we fail with the whole world watching. That's the strength of our space program.
Personally, I applaud the engineers behind this entire mission. They were given an almost impossible task and came up with a solution (despite all the arm chair quarter backing going on). Though there are so many variables involved anything could happen (one slight crack in a PCB trace is all it takes to destroy an entire mission) they undertook it all with eyes wide open and didn't appear to back down in the slightest (as an aside, I once was given the task to design a power transistor for a flight surface of a fighter jet. I begged off the project). And let's be careful of something I see creeping more and more into into the "common consciousness"; there are "engineers" and then there are "Engineers". These people are the best of the best (I won't get dragged into silly arguments about that statement). This isn't a new iPhone we're talking about (antenna where?); these guys and women have the brains and the tools to do the job. A friend from the Air Force made me laugh-out-loud once when he was describing fighter pilots; "they're smarter than you, they think faster than you, they're taller than you, they're teeth are whiter and straighter than yours, they are simply better made humans than you". Let's not assume that the people working on this are the same as the guy in the next cubicle that thinks that current flow is "left to right". I hope they pull pull this off; if the do there should be ticker tape parades and a holiday for them. Instead, we'll most likely have to hear more about the Kardashians.
There is not a lot of choice. From what I understand, it is not going into Mars orbit to await a command, but rather a series of 5 trajectory correction burns will aim it at the atmospheric insertion point to within 2 km at a (Mars relative) speed of about 20,000 km/h.
Another first is that it will not traverse the atmosphere ballistically like previous landers, but will use thrusters and its cone shaped shell to enable attitude adjustments and to perform a series of s-shaped turns to adjust its flight path (and perhaps to bleed off speed?) There are an uncomfortable number of "firsts" in this mission.
It is not remote controlled. The entire sequence is completely under autonomous computer control. This is mentioned in the video. All high speed manuevers at such distances must be autonomous because the round trip comms delay is nearly half an hour.
It all automation and robotic work at high velocity and heat, it would be very much interesting event to see the landing process, but unfortunately no camera can record the actual landing process and send it back to earth. But still it is very good that people who are working on this project has disclosed this much details of the project. The comment trails are also very much interesting, I would like to see more interesting comments coming up here.