NASA Trims Down Curiosity's Landing Strip
June 11, 2012

NASA Trims Down Curiosity’s Landing Strip

Lee Rannals for

NASA has trimmed down the distance that its new Mars rover will have to drive by getting Curiosity closer to its target spot after landing.

The space agency announced on Monday that it has cut down the distance the car-sized rover will drive by almost half.

The new landing spot gets Curiosity closer to the foot of a mountain slope that poses a landing hazard, while at the same time getting the rover months ahead of schedule for arrival at the mountain.

Curiosity is scheduled to land on August 6 at 1:31 eastern time on the Red Planet. Upon arrival, the rover will begin a two-year study of whether the landing vicinity ever offered an environment favorable for microbial life.

The target had originally been about 12 miles wide and 16 miles long, but they were able to shrink the area to about 4 miles wide and 12 miles long, assuming weather on Mars proves to be favorable.

NASA said the rover will be able to touch down at a safe distance from the steep slopes at the edge of Mount Sharp.

"We have been preparing for years for a successful landing by Curiosity, and all signs are good," Dave Lavery, Mars Science Laboratory program executive at NASA, said. "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."

Engineers have been testing and improving Curiosity's landing software since it launched from Earth back in November last year.

Mars Science Laboratory onboard Curiosity will be using an upgraded version of flight software that engineers installed on its computers during the past two weeks.

NASA has also upgraded the rover's software to understand the effects of debris coming from the drill Curiosity will be using to collect samples from rocks on Mars.

Experiments by engineers showed that Teflon from the drill could mix with the powdered samples.

"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," John Grotzinger, the mission's project scientist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, said in a statement. "Organic carbon compounds in an environment are one prerequisite for life."

Grotzinger said they know meteorites deliver non-biological organic carbon to Mars, but they are unsure whether the material exists near the surface.

"We will be checking for that and for other chemical and mineral clues about habitability," he said.