The NASA team behind the Mars rover scheduled to touchdown this weekend held a news conference today, August 2nd, offering some of the latest details about their hopes and fears surrounding the mission and current status of the rover. Everything is a go for a landing in the early morning hours this Monday. The spacecraft is healthy as is the metric ton sized rover tucked inside. But the entire team is on pins and needles about the landing, and crossing fingers that all goes as planned. Out of the entire Sunday evening’s hair-raising events leading up to a touchdown, the parachute and sky crane maneuvers are what “what keeps the team up at night”‘, says lead mission engineer Adam Steltzner.
Another worry has nothing to do with man-made technology working properly – it’s what the weather will be like on Mars when we get there. There is currently a large dust storm kicking up about 1000 km from the landing site according to the latest imagery from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and the worry is that it could either “drift over the landing site or stir up dust that moves as haze over the site,”.
While they are waiting with nervous anticipation, the big take home message the engineers and scientists made sure to get across to reporters was that Mars Science Laboratory mission is a bridge between past and future missions that not only builds on lessons learned from Mars probes gone by but also leverages the current assets that are still functioning at Mars. They also outlined how some of the data that will be returned from the entry, decent and landing will be critical in designing future human missions to the Red Planet.
Here is the official word from NASA today…
“NASA’s newest Mars mission, landing in three days, will draw on support from missions sent to Mars years ago and will contribute to missions envisioned for future decades.
“Curiosity is a bold step forward in learning about our neighboring planet, but this mission does not stand alone. It is part of a sustained, coordinated program of Mars exploration,” said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “This mission transitions the program’s science emphasis from the planet’s water history to its potential for past or present life.”
As the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft places the Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars next week, NASA will be using the Mars Odyssey orbiter, in service since 2001, as a relay for rapidly confirming the landing to Curiosity’s flight team and the rest of the world. Earth will be below the Mars horizon from Curiosity’s perspective, so the new rover will not be in direct radio contact with Earth. Two newer orbiters also will be recording Curiosity’s transmissions, but that data will not be available on Earth until hours later.
When Curiosity lands beside a mountain inside a crater at about 1:31 a.m. EDT, Aug. 6 (10:31 p.m. PDT Aug. 5), the 1-ton rover’s two-year prime mission on the surface of Mars will begin. However, one of the rover’s 10 science instruments, the Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD), already has logged 221 days collecting data since the spacecraft was launched on its trip to Mars on Nov. 26, 2011.
“Our observations already are being used in planning for human missions,” said Don Hassler of Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., principal investigator for Curiosity’s RAD.
The instrument recorded radiation spikes from five solar flare events spewing energetic particles from the Sun into interplanetary space. Radiation from galactic cosmic rays, originating from supernova explosions and other extremely distant events, accounted for more of the total radiation experienced on the trip than the amount from solar particle events. Inside the spacecraft, despite shielding roughly equivalent to what surrounds astronauts on the International Space Station, RAD recorded radiation amounting to a significant contribution to a NASA astronaut’s career-limit radiation dose.
Curiosity’s main assignment is to investigate whether its study area ever has offered environmental conditions favorable for microbial life. To do that, it packs a science payload weighing 15 times as much as the science instruments on previous Mars rovers. The landing target, an area about 12 miles by 4 miles (20 kilometers by 7 kilometers), sits in a safely flat area between less-safe slopes of the rim of Gale Crater and the crater’s central peak, informally called Mount Sharp. The target was plotted to be within driving distance of layers on Mount Sharp, where minerals that formed in water have been seen from orbit.
“Some deposits right inside the landing area look as though they were deposited by water, too,” said John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, project scientist for Curiosity. “We have a great landing site that was a strong science contender for earlier missions, but was not permitted for engineering constraints because no earlier landing could be targeted precisely enough to hit a safe area inside Gale Crater. The science team feels very optimistic about exploration of Mount Sharp and the surrounding region that includes the landing ellipse.”
Mission engineers designed a sky crane maneuver, lowering Curiosity on nylon cords from a rocket backpack because the rover is too heavy to use the airbag system developed for earlier rovers. “We know it looks crazy,” said Adam Steltzner of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, leader of the team that developed the system. “It really is the result of careful choices.” By designing the aeroshell enclosing Curiosity to create lift and be steerable, engineers were able to build a system that lands much more precisely instead of dropping like a rock.”
Tags: Mars, Mars Science Laboratory
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