NASA has narrowed down the potential landing sites for its rover, Curiosity. It has decided to land closer to its destination for science operations, but also closer to the foot of a mountain slope, which may create problems.
The rover Curiosity is scheduled to land on Mars in August, and look for signs of life, both past and present.
“We’re trimming the distance we’ll have to drive after landing by almost half,” said Pete Theisinger, Mars Science Laboratory project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “That could get us to the mountain months earlier.”
The adjustment of the landing site is possible because of NASA’s increased confidence in the precision of the landing technology onboard the Mars Science Laboratory Spacecraft. It believes that it can aim closer without potentially hitting Mount Sharp. Some of the rock layers located in Mount Sharp are the prime target of the Curiosity rover’s research.
Curiosity is due to land on Mars at approximately 10:31 PDT August 5th. After post-landing checkups, the rover will then begin its two-year prime mission to find out if the area around the landing site could ever have supported microbial life.
The previous landing target range had been around 12 miles wide and 16 miles long. After analyzing the landing system’s capabilities further, the mission team has been able to reduce the target range to 4 miles wide and 12 miles long. This assumes that atmospheric and wind conditions will be as predicted. Even with the reduced range the mission planners are confident they can land at a safe distance from the rough slopes at the edge of Mount Sharp.
“We have been preparing for years for a successful landing by Curiosity, and all signs are good,” said Dave Lavery, Mars Science Laboratory program executive at NASA. “However, landing on Mars always carries risks, so success is not guaranteed. Once on the ground we’ll proceed carefully. We have plenty of time since Curiosity is not as life-limited as the approximate 90-day missions like NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers and the Phoenix lander.”
The Mars Science Laboratory Spacecraft was launched during November 2011. Since then, engineers have been testing and improving its landing software, allowing for the improved landing range. The landing will use new software that was just uploaded to the spacecraft’s computers in the last two weeks.
Additional upgrades to the rover are planned to be uploaded around a week after landing. Some of the planned upgrades include accounting for the contamination effects of potential debris from the rover’s drill. Experiments done on Earth have indicated that the Teflon from the drill could mix with the samples, potentially contaminating it.
“The material from the drill could complicate, but will not prevent analysis of carbon content in rocks by one of the rover’s 10 instruments. There are workarounds,” said John Grotzinger, the mission’s project scientist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “Organic carbon compounds in an environment are one prerequisite for life. We know meteorites deliver non-biological organic carbon to Mars, but not whether it persists near the surface. We 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.”
Source and Images: JPL/NASA