Mars Science Laboratory Adjusts Flight Path For Curiosity Landing
July 30, 2012

Mars Science Laboratory Flight Path Adjustment Before Big Curiosity Landing

[ Watch the Video: Seven Minutes Of Terror ]

Lee Rannals for - Your Universe Online

As the newest rover nears its destination to the Red Planet, NASA engineers made some final adjustments to the Mars Science Laboratory's flight path on Sunday to ensure accuracy.

NASA fired up MSL's thrusters for six-seconds, shifting its entrance into the Mars atmosphere by 13 miles.

The space agency has its eyes on a 12-mile by 4-mile area of land next to Mount Sharp to land its Curiosity rover.

Its landing location was picked because scientists believe Gale Crater may hold clues as to whether the planet has ever had the proper ingredients to support life.

The latest thruster firing has been on NASA's agenda since before the spacecraft launched on November 26, 2011. It altered the flight path less than any of its previous maneuvers.

"The first look at telemetry and tracking data afterwards indicates the maneuver succeeded as planned," Tomas Martin-Mur of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., chief of the mission's navigation team, said in a prepared statement.

The firings altered MSL's velocity by about one-fortieth of one mile per hour. Curiosity will be entering the Martian atmosphere by about 13,000 mph.

NASA said that it will have opportunities for two further course corrections within a 48 hour window before landing.

"I will not be surprised if this was our last trajectory correction maneuver," Martin Mur said of Saturday's event. "We will be monitoring the trajectory using the antennas of the Deep Space Network to be sure Curiosity is staying on the right path for a successful entry, descent and landing."

The landing is being called "seven minutes of terror" because of how difficult it will be to get Curiosity safely onto the planet.

MSL may be entering the Mars atmosphere at 13,000 mph, but NASA engineers have just seven minutes to get Curiosity down to about 1.7 mph before touching down on the planet's surface. Officials at the space agency have made it clear that landing safely on Mars is all but guaranteed.

"Descent from the top of Mars' atmosphere to the surface will employ bold techniques enabling use of a smaller target area and heavier landed payload than were possible for any previous Mars mission," NASA said. "These innovations, if successful, will place a well-equipped mobile laboratory into a locale especially well-suited for its mission of discovery."

The same innovations being used for this mission will help NASA advanced towards having capabilities needed for sending humans to Mars.

As of Monday, MSL has traveled about 343 million miles of its 352-million-mile journey to the Red Planet. Join redOrbit Sunday night at 10:31 p.m. PDT (1:31 a.m. on August 6 EDT) to get live coverage of the event.