Even as it hurtles towards an August 5 rendezvous with the red planet, NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) is being fine-tuned for a more precise landing and better operations once it reaches its destination.
NASA today gave a status report for the MSL which was launched November 2011, and is still over 17.5 million kilometers away from Mars. Of major interest today was the fact NASA said it has narrowed landing target for the Mars rover, Curiosity letting it touch down closer to its ultimate destination for science operations, but also closer to the foot of a mountain slope that poses a landing hazard, the agency said.
"We're trimming the distance we'll have to drive after landing by almost half," said Pete Theisinger, Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. It was possible to adjust landing plans because of increased confidence in precision landing technology aboard the MSL spacecraft, which is carrying the rover.
According to NASA, the landing target had been an ellipse 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 as predicted.
NASA said Curiosity's landing site is near the base of a mountain known as Mount Sharp inside Gale Crater, near the Martian equator. Rock layers located in the mountain are the prime location for research with the rover. Researchers plan to use Curiosity to study layers in the mountain that hold evidence about wet environments of early Mars. According to NASA, Mount Sharp rises about 5 kilometers above the landing target on the crater floor, higher than Mount Rainier above Seattle, though broader and closer.
. "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." noted Dave Lavery, MSL program executive.
Some other updates in the mission:
- Software upgrades: The Lab 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.
- Drill bits: NASA has gotten a better understanding of how the debris generated from the Lab's drill might sully the rock samples NASA is interested in. 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, MSL 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."
- Two NASA Mars orbiters along with a European Space Agency orbiter will be in position to listen to radio transmissions as MSL descends through Mars' atmosphere.
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