Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Curiosity to Land Closer to Mount Sharp

The above image shows changes in the target landing area for Curiosity, the rover of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory project. The large ellipse represents the original landing area. the smaller ellipse represents the new, smaller landing area. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ESA/DLR/FU Berlin/MSSS 

On Monday, June 11th, members of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission hosted a teleconference to provide updates on the status of the mission and on changes to the mission profile. And one of these changes, on first review, could cause some mission followers to gasp. 

Here is the deal. The MSL spacecraft is suppose to land the Curiosity rover inside Gale Crater so that the rover, after safely landing, can drive the rest of the way (over several months' time) to the central peak of the crater, called Mount Sharp. There the mission team will use the rover's instruments to investigate whether the area has ever offered an environment favorable for microbial life. 

But now, the mission team thinks they can shorten Curiosity's drive time by narrowing the landing target to a point closer to the foot of Mount Sharp. Specifically, they plan to cut the drive distance by half. The new plan could cut the drive time by months. The problem? Unless the mission team wants to toss out that whole "safely landing" outcome I mentioned earlier, they need to be pretty confident that they and the spacecraft can pull this off. And it seems that they are. 

Apparently, it was possible to adjust the landing plans because of increased confidence in the precision landing technology aboard the MSL spacecraft, which is carrying the Curiosity rover. The mission team report that the spacecraft can now aim closer without hitting Mount Sharp. 

Curiosity is scheduled to land at approximately 1:31 AM EDT, August 6 (10:31 PM PDT, August 5). Following checkout operations, Curiosity will begin a two-year study of whether the landing vicinity ever offered an environment favorable for microbial life. 

The landing target ellipse had been approximately 12 miles wide and 16 miles long (20 kilometers by 25 kilometers). Continuing analysis of the new landing system's capabilities has allowed mission planners to shrink the area to approximately 4 miles wide and 12 miles long (7 kilometers by 20 kilometers), assuming winds and other atmospheric conditions are as predicted. 

Even with the smaller ellipse, the mission team is confident that  Curiosity will be able to touch down at a safe distance from steep slopes at the edge of Mount Sharp. But they do note that landing on Mars always carries risks, so success is not guaranteed. Once on the ground, the team will proceed carefully. They have plenty of time since Curiosity is not as life-limited as the approximate 90-day missions like NASA's Mars Exploration Rovers (Spirit and Opportunity) and the Phoenix lander. 

Since the spacecraft was launched in November 2011, engineers have continued testing and improving its landing software. MSL will use an upgraded version of flight software installed on its computers during the past two weeks. Additional upgrades for Mars surface operations will be sent to the rover about a week after landing. 

Other preparations include upgrades to the rover's software and understanding the effects of debris coming from the drill the rover will use to collect samples from rocks on Mars. Experiments at JPL indicate that Teflon from the drill could mix with the powdered samples. Testing will continue past the landing with duplicates of the drill. The rover will deliver the samples to onboard instruments that can identify mineral and chemical ingredients. Any Teflon from the drill could complicate, but will not prevent analysis of carbon content in rocks by one of the rover's 10 instruments. The team members know there are workarounds. Organic carbon compounds in an environment are one prerequisite for life. Astronomers know meteorites deliver non-biological organic carbon to Mars, but not whether it persists near the surface. The MSL mission team will be checking for that and for other chemical and mineral clues about habitability. 

Curiosity will be in good company as it nears landing. Two NASA Mars orbiters, along with a European Space Agency orbiter, will be in position to listen to radio transmissions as Mars Science Laboratory descends through Mars' atmosphere. 

The mission is managed by JPL for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Curiosity was designed, developed and assembled at JPL. Caltech manages JPL for NASA. 

Follow the mission on Facebook and Twitter at www.facebook.com/marscuriosity and www.twitter.com/marscuriosity . 

For more information on the Mars Science Laboratory/Curiosity mission, visit: www.nasa.gov/msl . 

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