SPACE: Mars rover Curiosity closing in on landing site

Posted at 9:27 AM, Jun 12, 2012
and last updated 2012-07-12 08:41:37-04

RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR) - The National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) most advanced space rover yet is closing in on Earth's neighboring planet, Mars. Rover "Curiosity" is expected to land "at approximately 10:31 p.m. PDT August 5 (1:31 a.m. EDT, August 6, 2012)," according to the latest NASA projection. If Curiosity lands successfully and remains operational, it will begin a two-year study in its landing neighborhood to decipher whether Mars' environment would be conducive for microbial life. In other words, Curiosity is curious as to whether or not there is or was life on Mars! 

To help Curiosity perform this sci-fi-like mission, NASA narrowed its landing area to a tighter field (shown on the concept image below by the darker, smaller ellipse line) than originally planned.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ESA/DLR/FU Berlin/MSSS

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ESA/DLR/FU Berlin/MSSS

This landing will position Curiosity closer to the base of Mount Sharp, which is located inside Gale Crater on Mars.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ESA/DLR/FU Berlin/MSSS

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ESA/DLR/FU Berlin/MSSS.
The larger ellipse in this image, about 12.4 miles (20 kilometers) by 15.5 miles (25 kilometers) shows what the target area was prior to revision. The smaller one, about 12 miles by 4 miles (20 by 7 kilometers), indicates the revised target area.
This oblique view of Mount Sharp is derived from a combination of elevation and imaging data from three Mars orbiters. The view is looking toward the southeast. Gale Crater is 96 miles (154 kilometers) in diameter. Mount Sharp rises about 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers) above the floor of Gale Crater.
Stratification on Mount Sharp suggests the mountain is a surviving remnant of an extensive series of deposits that were laid down after a massive impact that excavated Gale Crater more than 3 billion years ago. The layers offer a history book of sequential chapters recording environmental conditions when each stratum was deposited.

"We're trimming the distance we'll have to drive after landing by almost half," said Pete Theisinger, Mars Science Laboratory project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA. "That could get us to the mountain months earlier." However, attempting a landing nearer the mountain cliffs poses a risk if there are shifts in the wind or other atmospheric conditions. Still, NASA is confident in the revised landing zone because it is still far enough away from the mountain that it should still land safely.

"We have been preparing for years for a successful landing by Curiosity, and all signs are good," said Dave Lavery, Mars Science Laboratory program executive at NASA, on Monday, June 11, 2012. "However, landing on Mars always carries risks, so success is not guaranteed. Once on the ground we'll proceed carefully. We have plenty of time since Curiosity is not as life-limited as the approximate 90-day missions like NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers and the Phoenix lander.”

This new landing area is the smallest landing target area of any Mars mission to date, primarily as a result of improved techniques and technology for landing precision. More software updates will be sent to Curiosity from Earth before landing to continue to improve the odds of a successful landing and resulting mission. Then NASA says it plans to send additional upgrades for Mars surface operations about a week after it lands on the Red Planet.

The Mars Science Laboratory carrying Curiosity was launched from Earth in November of 2011.
For more information on the Mars Science Laboratory/Curiosity mission, CLICK HERE

As Curiosity descends through Mars' atmosphere, it will be monitored by two NASA Mars orbiters, and a European Space Agency orbiter. These three orbiters will listen to Curiosity's radio transmissions (Curiosity is being transported inside the Mars Science Laboratory vessel).

Curious as to where Curiosity is right now on its trip to Mars? CLICK HERE to see where!

Curiosity is scheduled to drill into Mars' surface to collect rock samples, a process that has previously been somewhat difficult on the other rovers as a result of debris coming up from the drill and hitting the rover and other instrumentation on it. Teflon on the drill can contaminate these rock samples, and Curiosity will try to duplicate the previous problems as well as use new techniques to avoid potential sample contamination. This rover will analyze the samples onboard (meaning it doesn't have to send the samples back to Earth, but can bring it inside the rover for testing right there on Mars), identifying various mineral and chemical ingredients.

"The material from the drill could complicate, but will not prevent analysis of carbon content in rocks by one of the rover's 10 instruments. There are workarounds,” says John Grotzinger, the mission’s project scientist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. "Organic carbon compounds in an environment are one prerequisite for life. We know meteorites deliver non-biological organic carbon to Mars, but not whether it persists near the surface. We will be checking for that and for other chemical and mineral clues about habitability."

NASA artist concept of Curiosity

NASA artist concept of Curiosity

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena. The JPL manages the Mars Science Laboratory mission for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Washington.
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