July 16, 2012

Mars Curiosity Rover Nears Its Target, More Hurdles Await

Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

NASA's newest member to the Mars rover family is nearing the end of its journey through space, but its hurdles are all but over.

The space agency said that getting the Curiosity rover to the Martian surface will be all but easy on August 5.

"The Curiosity landing is the hardest NASA mission ever attempted in the history of robotic planetary exploration," John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said in a press release. "While the challenge is great, the team's skill and determination give me high confidence in a successful landing."

In order to land safely inside Gale Crater, the spacecraft will fly like a wing in the upper atmosphere instead of dropping like a rock.

NASA developed an airbag method used on previous Mars rover missions to land the 1-ton rover. Mission engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California designed a "sky crane" method for the final several seconds of the flight.

A backpack with retro-rockets controlling descent speed will help lower the rover on three nylon cords just before touchdown.

The Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft carrying Curiosity must decelerate from about 13,200 mph to just 1.7 mph in only about seven-seconds in order to allow the rover to land safely on the surface.

"Those seven minutes are the most challenging part of this entire mission," Pete Theisinger, the mission's project manager at JPL, said in a press release. "For the landing to succeed, hundreds of events will need to go right, many with split-second timing and all controlled autonomously by the spacecraft. We've done all we can think of to succeed. We expect to get Curiosity safely onto the ground, but there is no guarantee. The risks are real."

Microsoft Corp. unveiled a new outreach game in collaboration with NASA on Monday that gives the public a sense of the challenge and adventure of landing the rover on the Martian surface.

"Mars Rover Landing" is an "immersive experience for the Xbox 360 home entertainment console that allows users to take control of their own spacecraft and face the extreme challenges of landing a rover on Mars," NASA said on Monday.

JPL mission controllers will be putting the rover through a series of checkouts and activities during the initial weeks after the landing.

After it checks out, Curiosity will be investigating whether an area with a wet history inside Mars' Gale Crater ever has offered up an environment favorable for microbial life.

"Earlier missions have found that ancient Mars had wet environments," Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA's Mars Program at NASA Headquarters, said in a press release. "Curiosity takes us the next logical step in understanding the potential for life on Mars."

The rover will be using tools to help deliver samples into laboratory instruments inside the rover that can reveal chemical and mineral composition.

A laser instrument will be using its beam to induce a spark on a target and read the spark's spectrum of light to identify chemical elements in the target.

Other instruments will examine the surrounding environment from a distance or by direct touch with the arm.  Curiosity will check for the basic chemical ingredients for life, and for evidence about energy available for life.

"For its ambitious goals, this mission needs a great landing site and a big payload," Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters, said in a press release. "During the descent through the atmosphere, the mission will rely on bold techniques enabling use of a smaller target area and a heavier robot on the ground than were possible for any previous Mars mission. Those techniques also advance us toward human-crew Mars missions, which will need even more precise targeting and heavier landers."