World News‎ > ‎

Curiosity rover just the next phase of Mars exploration

posted 5 Aug 2012, 18:39 by Mpelembe Admin   [ updated 5 Aug 2012, 18:41 ]

As Mars rover nears make-or-break landing, NASA declares that 'Curiosity' is only the next phase of further exploration that will inspire generations.

The Mars rover Curiosity, on a quest for signs the Red Planet once hosted ingredients for life, streaked into the home stretch of its eight-month voyage on Sunday (August 5) nearing a make-or-break landing attempt that NASA calls one of the toughest feats of robotic spaceflight.
Curiosity, the first full-fledged mobile science laboratory sent to a distant world, was scheduled to touch down inside a vast, ancient impact crater on Sunday at 10:31 p.m. Pacific time (1:31 a.m. EDT on Monday/0531 GMT on Monday).

Mission control engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Los Angeles acknowledge that delivering the one-ton, six-wheeled, nuclear-powered vehicle in one piece is a highly risky proposition, with zero margin for error. But just 12 hours away from Curiosity's rendezvous with Mars, JPL's team said the spacecraft and its systems were functioning flawlessly, and forecasts called for favorable Martian weather over the landing zone.

After a journey from Earth of more than 350 million miles (567 million km), engineers said they were hopeful the rover, the size of a small sports car, will land precisely as planned near the foot of a tall mountain rising from the floor of Gale Crater in Mars' southern hemisphere.

The vessel was sailing through space at about 8,000 miles (13,000 km) per hour and steadily gaining speed from the tug of Martian gravity and flight controllers anticipate clear and calm conditions for touchdown, slated to occur in the Martian late afternoon. There may be some haze in the planet's pink skies from ice clouds, typical for this time of year, with temperatures at about 10 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 12 Celsius).

Facing deep cuts in its science budget and struggling to regain its footing after cancellation of the space shuttle program - NASA's centerpiece for 30 years - the agency has much at stake in the outcome of the $2.5 billion mission, but is anticipating a success.

"Every mission -- whether it's about to land on Mars or operate in outer orbit -- we consider as being very precious and special. That said, obviously there's a lot a risk in space flight. It's much harder than just about anything we do here on Earth, and I think the event we're going to see here tonight is probably the hardest thing we've tried -- certainly at Mars, maybe with any robotic spacecraft -- and that means the outcome is uncertainty, but that's what drives people perform at much higher levels is that challenge, the excitement of that challenge, and the potential return," explained NASA Associate Administrator John Grunsfeld.

Mars is the chief component of NASA's long-term deep space exploration plans. Curiosity, the space agency's first astrobiology mission since the 1970s-era Viking probes, is designed primarily to search for evidence that the planet most similar to Earth may once have harbored the necessary building blocks for microbial life to evolve.

"I'm going to tell you know that the most exciting thing the Curiosity rover will provide scientists data to discover is going to be something we've never -- our imagination hasn't figured out yet. It's going to be some big discovery. And that's what happened with Spirit and that's what'll happen with Curiosity is that we didn't have a clue how interesting it is going to be," added Grunsfeld.

The rover, formally called the Mars Science Lab, is equipped with an array of sophisticated chemistry and geology instruments capable of analyzing samples of soil, rocks and atmosphere on the spot and beaming results back to scientists on Earth.

One is a laser gun that can zap a rock from 23 feet (7 meters) away to create a spark whose spectral image is analyzed by a special telescope to discern the mineral's chemical composition.

"If you love space and you love robots this is the mission for you. And when I was growing up it was dinosaurs and space, that's what my friends loved, that's what I loved, that's what kids of many generations have loved. Kids today are much more sophisticated -- I think it's robots in space. Robots in space and a robot with a laser that can zap rocks? It doesn't get any better than that," said Grunsfeld.

One is a laser gun that can zap a rock from 23 feet (7 meters) away to create a spark whose spectral image is analyzed by a special telescope to discern the mineral's chemical composition.

If everything works according to plan, controllers at JPL will know within a minute or two that the Curiosity is safely on the ground, alerted by a terse radio transmission relayed to Earth from the Mars orbiter Odyssey flying overhead.

A satellite relay is necessary because Earth will set beneath the Martian horizon about two minutes before the scheduled landing.

If no landing signal comes, it could take hours or days for scientists to learn if radio communications with the rover were merely disrupted or that it crashed or burned up during descent.