Sunday, August 5, 2012

NASA's Mars Curiosity Rover To Land Within 24-Hours

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida -- With Mars looming ever larger in front of it, NASA's Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft and its Curiosity rover are in the final stages of preparing for entry, descent and landing on the Red Planet at 1:31 a.m. EDT on Monday August 5, 2012.  After landing on Mars, Curiosity will begin a two-year study of whether the landing vicinity ever offered an environment favorable for microbial life.
NASA says that Curiosity remains in good health with all systems operating as expected. Saturday, the flight team uplinked and confirmed commands to make minor corrections to the spacecraft's navigation reference point parameters. 
As part of the onboard sequence of autonomous activities leading to the landing, catalyst bed heaters were turned on Saturday afternoon to prepare the eight Mars Lander Engines that are part of MSL's descent propulsion system.  
As of 5:25 p.m. EDT on August 4, MSL was approximately 261,000 miles (420,039 kilometers) from Mars, closing in at a little more than 8,000 mph (about 3,600 meters per second).
The car-size rover's very first images will come from the one-megapixel Hazard-Avoidance cameras (Hazcams) attached to the body of the rover. Once engineers have determined that it is safe to deploy the rover's Remote Sensing Mast and its high-tech cameras, a process that may take several days, Curiosity will begin to survey its exotic surroundings. 

The very first images are likely to arrive more than two hours after landing, due to the timing of NASA's signal-relaying Odyssey orbiter. They will be captured with the left and right Hazcams at the back and front of the rover, and they will not yet be full-resolution (the two images arriving on Earth first are "thumbnail" copies, which are 64 by 64 pixels in size). The Hazcams are equipped with very wide-angle, fisheye lenses, initially capped with clear dust covers. The covers are designed to protect the cameras from dust that may be kicked up during landing; they are clear just in case they don't pop off as expected. 

These first views will give engineers a good idea of what surrounds Curiosity, as well as its location and tilt. "Ensuring that the rover is on stable ground is important before raising the rover's mast," said Mission Manager Jennifer Trosper at JPL. "We are using an entirely new landing system on this mission, so we are proceeding with caution."
Spectators watch the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Atlas V launch of the Mars Curiosity mission from the nearby Space Coast Art Festival in Cocoa Beach Florida on November 26, 2011. Brevard Times / File

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

Other preparations included upgrades to the rover's software and understanding 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 landing with copies of the drill. The rover will deliver the samples to onboard instruments that can identify mineral and chemical ingredients. 

"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. 

The image combines elevation data from the High Resolution Stereo Camera on the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter, image data from the Context Camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and color information from Viking Orbiter imagery. There is no vertical exaggeration in the image. 

Image credit Mars Rover: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Image Credit Landing Site: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ESA/DLR/FU Berlin/MSSS