NASA's Mars rover two weeks from landing

Jul 17, 2012 By Guy Webster and Dwayne Brown
The area where NASA's Curiosity rover will land on Aug. 5 PDT (Aug. 6 EDT) has a geological diversity that scientists are eager to investigate, as seen in this false-color map based on data from NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

(Phys.org) -- NASA's most advanced planetary rover is on a precise course for an early August landing beside a Martian mountain to begin two years of unprecedented scientific detective work. However, getting the Curiosity rover to the surface of Mars will not be easy.

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

The Mars Science Laboratory mission is a precursor for future human missions to Mars. President Obama has set a challenge to reach the Red Planet in the 2030s.

To achieve the precision needed for landing safely inside Gale Crater, the spacecraft will fly like a wing in the upper atmosphere instead of dropping like a rock. To land the 1-ton rover, an airbag method used on previous Mars rovers will not work. Mission engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., designed a "sky crane" method for the final several seconds of the flight. A backpack with retro-rockets controlling descent speed will lower the rover on three nylon cords just before touchdown.

During a critical period lasting only about seven minutes, the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft carrying Curiosity must decelerate from about 13,200 mph (about 5,900 meters per second) to allow the rover to land on the surface at about 1.7 mph (three-fourths of a meter per second). Curiosity is scheduled to land at approximately 10:31 p.m. PDT on Aug. 5 (1:31 a.m. EDT on Aug. 6).

"Those seven minutes are the most challenging part of this entire mission," said Pete Theisinger, the mission's project manager at JPL. "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."

During the initial weeks after the actual landing, JPL mission controllers will put the rover through a series of checkouts and activities to characterize its performance on Mars, while gradually ramping up scientific investigations. Curiosity then will begin investigating whether an area with a wet history inside Mars' Gale Crater ever has offered an environment favorable for microbial life.

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

This artist's concept shows NASA's Curiosity rover, a mobile robot investigating Mars' past or present ability to sustain microbial life. The robot launched from Florida's Cape Canaveral in November 2011, and aims to land in Mars' Gale Crater near Mount Sharp at 0531 GMT on August 6.

Curiosity will use tools on a robotic arm to deliver samples from Martian rocks and soils into laboratory instruments inside the rover that can reveal chemical and mineral composition. A laser instrument will use 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 on the car-sized rover will examine the surrounding environment from a distance or by direct touch with the arm. The rover will check for the basic chemical ingredients for life and for evidence about energy available for life. It also will assess factors that could be hazardous for life, such as the radiation environment.

"For its ambitious goals, this mission needs a great landing site and a big payload," said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters. "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."

The chosen landing site is beside a mountain informally called Mount Sharp. The mission's prime destination lies on the slope of the mountain. Driving there from the landing site may take many months.

"Be patient about the drive. It will be well worth the wait and we are apt to find some targets of interest on the way," said John Grotzinger, MSL project scientist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. "When we get to the lower layers in Mount Sharp, we'll read them like chapters in a book about changing environmental conditions when Mars was wetter than it is today."

In collaboration with Microsoft Corp., a new outreach game was unveiled Monday to give the public a sense of the challenge and adventure of landing in a precise location on the surface. Called "Mars Rover Landing," the game 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.

"Technology is making it possible for the public to participate in exploration as it never has before," said Michelle Viotti, JPL's Mars public engagement manager. "Because Mars exploration is fundamentally a shared human endeavor, we want everyone around the globe to have the most immersive experience possible."

Explore further: NASA deep-space rocket, SLS, to launch in 2018

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User comments : 15

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Sanescience
5 / 5 (5) Jul 17, 2012
"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,"

What could possibly go wrong! Seriously though, crossing all my fingers and toes. This is a big basket of "eggs".
jnjnjnjn
4 / 5 (4) Jul 17, 2012
A very big plus for NASA if they succeed.
And I hope they will.

J.
Doug_Huffman
3 / 5 (2) Jul 17, 2012
Yes, indeed. Best wishes. I hope we interested public will be able to worry through the seven minutes with a good detailed live broadcast.
ackzsel
4.5 / 5 (2) Jul 17, 2012
Is the 2 year mission length limited by its nuclear fuel? Or is it expected to be able to function mechanically for that period? It would be awesome if it can carry on much longer than expected like it's older brother. The artist's impression shows no solar panels, so I hope it carries much more nuclear fuel than needed for two years. Or is the nuclear fuel much heavier than I think?

Sounds like an awesome mission.
CapitalismPrevails
1.5 / 5 (2) Jul 17, 2012
I bet it will last longer than 2 years. NASA seems to have the estimated life spans of their probes intentionally planned out very conservatively so they can benefit from the PR when they last longer than expected. I think they rated the Opportunity, Spirit, Sojourner to only last a few weeks or months at the max. But I always had a gut feeling they wold to be able to last longer than that.
jsdarkdestruction
1 / 5 (1) Jul 17, 2012
I bet it will last longer than 2 years. NASA seems to have the estimated life spans of their probes intentionally planned out very conservatively so they can benefit from the PR when they last longer than expected. I think they rated the Opportunity, Spirit, Sojourner to only last a few weeks or months at the max. But I always had a gut feeling they wold to be able to last longer than that.

or perhaps they are low balling it in case the worst case scenario is the one that actually plays out. if they went and gave their best case scenario out there as most likely and they then didnt reach that scenario it would look bad and people could say nasa was misleading with their optimism and the money didnt do what they said it would.
SteveL
not rated yet Jul 17, 2012
There are a vast number of unknowns when exploring another planet. When building the explorers they can proactively engineer for the issues they know about. It's the issues they either don't fully understand or don't know about that tend to limit the life expectancy of a project. Even on this planet despite all of our years of experience we are still learning about the many of variables that effect us and our equipment.

I also am hoping that the project will land well and last much longer than the designed (conservative) life expectancy.
Shootist
1 / 5 (2) Jul 17, 2012
"The Curiosity landing is the hardest NASA mission ever attempted in the history of robotic planetary exploration"


Uh, why would this landing be more difficult than Viking?
Zatoichi
not rated yet Jul 17, 2012
I can't wait. I hope everything goes well. Why did they have to mention POTUS "challenge"? You got to love election year politics. Who is POTUS challenging? China? Russia? India? I would have to say that this president has been a real challenge to the NASA budget. Maybe he's secretly trying to send Goldman Sachs to the moon on a General Motors rocket.
dschlink
not rated yet Jul 17, 2012
The current 2-year limit is on funding. I suspect once the rover is on the surface and sending data, money will be found to extend the mission. The radioisotope thermoelectric generator is good for decades.
Sanescience
2.3 / 5 (3) Jul 18, 2012
I bet it will last longer than 2 years. NASA seems to have the estimated life spans of their probes intentionally planned out very conservatively so they can benefit from the PR when they last longer than expected.

Its not quite that calculated. For example Spirit and Opportunity turned out to last as long as they did because dust build up was swept from their solar panels on occasion by little wind eddies. That was unexpected and with out it the rovers would have only lasted months.
CapitalismPrevails
1 / 5 (1) Jul 18, 2012
Its not quite that calculated. For example Spirit and Opportunity turned out to last as long as they did because dust build up was swept from their solar panels on occasion by little wind eddies. That was unexpected and with out it the rovers would have only lasted months.


The rovers had 3 month expected lifespans.
http://www.univer...n-rover/ All_2005.html

On sol 456-463, May 13, 2005 the cleaning event happened which was 15 months after sol 11, Feb 04, 2004.
http://marsrover....004.html

Which was 15 months after the rovers landed on sol 11, Feb 04, 2004. They still lasted longer than rated without any unforeseen influences.
Sanescience
1 / 5 (1) Jul 19, 2012
Um, ok, not sure why you were so offended by a lack of specifics that you needed to "fail" vote me.

The gist was they expected the dust to smother the rovers in about 3 months. Perhaps a conservative guess. Perhaps based on previous missions rate of "dusting". Maybe a moving rover shed dust via vibrations. Maybe it was just really good luck with the weather. But it could have easily been an over estimation if bad luck had dumped more dust than usual and smothered the rovers.
Apex2001
not rated yet Jul 19, 2012
Sanescience, Apparently your very conscientious and sensitive of down votes. And how would you know it was CP and not me? How do we know it wasn't you who gave CP a lone down vote?
Sanescience
1 / 5 (1) Jul 20, 2012
Um, I guess you didn't know that you can see in your activity history who votes on your post.

Anyways, yes, I'm quite conscientious, I always pick up my litter :-P

Seriously though I didn't think I sounded "sensitive". I don't care really, just want communicate clearly and its good to understand the way other people didn't get it.