August 12, 2012

Following Nearly Perfect Landing, Curiosity Receiving Land-Based Movement Software

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

After traveling more than 350 million miles through space en route to the Red Planet, the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity landed less than two miles from its target destination when it touched down last Monday, NASA officials have revealed.

The $2.6 billion rover, which is currently on a two-year mission in order to determine whether or not the planet's environment could have supported life at some point in the past, missed its entry point into Mars' atmosphere by approximately one mile, CNN reporter Jason Hanna explained on Saturday.

Furthermore, "most everything in its complicated descent and landing operations -- a spectacle popularly known as the 'seven minutes of terror' -- happened on time, including the deployment of the largest-ever supersonic parachute and the heat shield separation," Hanna added, noting that the success of the procedure could give NASA personnel "more confidence about landing spacecraft in tight spaces in the future."

The entire entry procedure, from the initial entry into the atmosphere to reaching the planet's surface, took a total of seven minutes and 12 seconds, and Curiosity was traveling at 24-times the speed of sound when it initially entered Martian airspace, according to BBC News Science Correspondent Jonathan Amos.

Furthermore, NASA personnel told Amos that the rover's gravitational force was slightly over 11 Earth Gs, and that tail winds might have been to blame for the vehicle's slight course deviation during the landing procedure.

On Friday, NASA engineers also started the process of installing new computer software into Curiosity which will allow it to travel over across the planet's surface, Reuters' Steve Gorman said. The process was expected to take four-days to complete and will replace the program used to land the vehicle and will allow it to be driven by NASA engineers, as well as operate its robotic arm and drill in order to collect samples.

"The $2.5 billion project, formally named the Mars Science Laboratory, is NASA's first astrobiology mission since the Viking probes of the 1970s and is touted as the first full-fledged mobile biochemistry lab ever sent to a distant world," Gorman said. "The rover comes equipped with an array of sophisticated instruments capable of analyzing samples of soil, rocks and atmosphere on the spot and beaming results back to Earth."

"The principal target of its exploration is a 3-mile- (5-kilometer) high tower of layered rock, named Mount Sharp, which is believed to have formed from sediment that once filled Gale Crater," he added. "The mound, which stands a short distance from Curiosity's landing site near the center of the crater, is seen by Mars scientists as a potential gold mine of geologic study."