July 11, 2012

Curiosity’s Success Not A Guarantee, NASA Official Says

Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

As Curiosity continues to trot its way through space towards Mars, a NASA official acknowledged that the mission could still face trouble.

NASA's new rover is expected to reach the surface of the Red Planet on August 6, but just because the mission has found successes so far doesn't mean the mission is foolproof.

One thing Doug McCuistion, the head of NASA's Mars Exploration Program, told attendees at the Farnborough Airshow was that he is worried about the success of the spacecraft's heat shield.

McCuistion said he is worried about whether the heat shield will detach as planned when the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) sets down Curiosity.

"If you look at the scorecard, Earth is doing less than 50 percent; less than 50 percent of Earth's missions to Mars have been successful," McCuistion, a former U.S. fighter pilot, said at the Farnborough Airshow south of London.

A report by the Associated Press shows that so far, over 60 percent of the missions to Mars have failed.

AP said that the scoreboard for missions to Mars reads 40 attempts, and just 14 success to the Red Planet.

NASA's Mars spacecraft still has a number of tasks to complete for Curiosity to make a safe landing onto the planet.  First, it must get rid of the heat shield and avoid a collision with it. Then, the spacecraft has to slow down using parachutes and rockets mounted around the rim of an upper stage.

The Mars Science Laboratory has to also act as a sky crane, lowering the upright rover on a tether to the surface.

Although the outcome of the mission is not a guarantee, McCuistion is still confident in the mission's success.

"I can't really give you a hard number .... but I think we are in a medium-to-low risk environment," McCuistion said at the event.

Curiosity will be spending 23 months analyzing dozens of samples drilled from rocks or scooped up from the ground as it trolls around the Martian surface.