June 27, 2012

Curiosity Flight Path Slightly Adjusted By NASA

Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com

NASA made some slight adjustments to its Mars Science Laboratory's flight path on Tuesday, ensuring its rover makes an accurate landing to the Martian site.

The one-ton rover is expected to arrive at the Red Planet on August 5, 2012, after venturing through space towards Mars since its November 26, 2011 launch.

The landing will mark the beginning of the rover's two-year prime mission to investigate whether Mars ever offered an environment favorable for microbial life.

The latest flight path adjustment is the third, and smallest, since its launch. NASA engineers burned the spacecraft's thrusters for just 40 seconds.

Spacecraft data and doppler-effect changes in radio signal from MSL indicate the maneuver was successful, according to NASA.

The maneuver adjusted the rover's location where it will enter Mars' atmosphere by about 125 miles, and advances the time of entry by about 70 seconds.

"This puts us closer to our entry target, so if any further maneuvers are needed, I expect them to be small," JPL's Tomas Martin-Mur, the mission's navigation team chief, said in a statement.

NASA said there could be up to three additional trajectory correction maneuvers during the final eight days of flight.

The latest maneuver helped correct errors in the flight path that remained after earlier correction maneuvers, and helped carry out a decision made earlier this month to adjust the landing zone by about 4 miles closer to Mount Sharp.

The flight path alteration saw that the spacecraft's velocity be adjusted by one-tenth of a mile per hour. The flight's first and second trajectory correction maneuvers produced velocity changes about 150 times larger on January 11, and about 20 times larger on March 26.

Moving Curiosity closer to Mount Sharp may have shaved off months of time needed for driving from the landing zone to the selected destinations of water-related minerals on the slope of the mountain.

In its path to Mars, Curiosity has entered its "approach phase," with its next step being landing day.

"We're in the home stretch now. The spacecraft continues to perform very well. And the flight team is up for the challenge," Mission Manager Arthur Amador of JPL said in a statement.

"In the next 40 days, the flight team will be laser-focused on the preparations for the challenging events of landing day -- continuously tracking the spacecraft's trajectory and monitoring the health and performance of its onboard systems, while using NASA's Deep Space Network to stay in continuous communications," Amador continued in the press release.

As of Wednesday, the Mars Science Laboratory has traveled about 307 million miles of its 352-million-mile route to Mars, according to NASA.