Space

July 19, 2012

NASA’s Mars Science Lab landing soon

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by Raphael Jaffe
Staff Writer

This artist’s concept shows the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, a mobile robot for investigating Mars’ past or present ability to sustain microbial life. It is a robot geologist and chemist in one. In this picture, the rover examines a rock on Mars with a set of tools at the end of the rover’s arm, which extends about 7 feet. Two instruments on the arm can study rocks up close. A drill can collect sample material from inside of rocks and a scoop can pick up samples of soil. The arm can sieve the samples and deliver fine powder to instruments inside the rover for thorough analysis. The mast, or rover’s “head,” rises to about 6.9 feet above ground level. This mast supports two remote-sensing science instruments: the Mast Camera, or “eyes,” for stereo color viewing of surrounding terrain and material collected by the arm; and, the Chemistry and Camera instrument, which uses a laser to vaporize a speck of material on rocks up to about 23 feet away and then determines the rocks elements.

For the most part, there was upbeat news about the Aug. 5 landing of the Mars Science Lab [Curiosity] discussed at a NASA July 16 news conference.

The mission components have shown outstanding performance during its eight-month cruse.

The spacecraft completed an attitude control burn July 11 that positions the medium gain antenna toward the earth for communications, and July 12 there was a final operational readiness exercise of the landing procedures.

Curiosity is scheduled to land at approximately 10:31 p.m., PDT, Aug. 5.

But the Mars Odyssey satellite has suffered a reaction wheel failure and is not in the orbit that was planned to relay touchdown communications to the earth. NASA is currently determining if this situation can be improved. If not, touchdown parameters may not reach the earth for 1 1/2 to 2 hours after touchdown, when the next orbit of Odyssey will be in direct line of sight view of MSL and the Earth.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter telecommunication system receives, stores, and plays back to the Deep Space Network, but several hours of delay may be involved. The European Space Agency Mars Express will be a real time relay of the landing data, but its orbit does not allow the last minute of the landing to be monitored.

Doug McCuistion, NASA Headquarters Mars Exploration Program manager says, “There’s no impact to landing itself. It’s simply how that data gets returned to us and how timely that data is. We’re assessing what the issues are.”

MSL is the most advanced planetary rover in the history of exploration.

“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, D.C. “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 Barack Obama has set a challenge to reach the Red Planet in the 2030s.

This oblique view of Gale crater shows the landing site and the mound of layered rocks that MSL will investigate. Two canyons (marked by arrows) were cut in the mound through the layers containing the clay minerals and sulfate salts after deposition of the layers. These canyons, much like the Grand Canyon expose layers of rock representing tens or hundreds of millions of years of environmental change. The rover may be able to investigate these layers in the canyon closest to the landing ellipse, gaining access to a long history of environmental change on the planet.

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, the airbag method used on previous rovers would not work. Mission engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have 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 MSL spacecraft carrying Curiosity must decelerate from about 13,200 mph to allow the rover to land on the surface at about 1.7 mph.

“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.”

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. “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 at the news conference 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. It’s available without charge.

“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.”

NASA has several other forthcoming experiences geared for inspiration and learning in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Information about many ways to watch and participate in the Curiosity’s landing and the mission on the surface of Mars is available at http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/participate.




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