Curiosity Nears Daring Landing on Mars
The Mars Science Laboratory mission is a precursor for future human missions to Mars. President Obama has set a challenge to reach the Red Planet in the 2030s.
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, an airbag method used on previous Mars rovers will not work. Mission engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., 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–also known as “the seven minutes of terror”–the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft carrying Curiosity must decelerate from about 13,200 mph (about 5,900 meters per second) to allow the rover to land on the surface at about 1.7 mph (three-fourths of a meter per second).
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.
Breaking New Ground
“For its ambitious goals, this mission needs a great landing site and a big payload,” said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters. “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 Monday 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. Source: NASA Press release
Follow Your Curiosity
Some New Ways to Explore Mars
NASA’s journey to Mars. The song is called “From Yesterday” by the band called “30 Seconds to Mars”. The 2nd song is Uninvited by Alanis Morissette.
As NASA’s Mars Rover Curiosity prepares to land on Mars, public audiences worldwide can take their own readiness steps to share in the adventure. Landing is scheduled for about 10:31 p.m. PDT on Aug. 5 (1:31 a.m. EDT on Aug. 6), at mission control inside NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
Martian fans can help NASA test-drive a new 3-D interactive experience that will allow the public to follow along with Curiosity’s discoveries on Mars. Using Unity, a game development tool, NASA is pushing new limits by rendering high-resolution terrain maps of Gale Crater, Curiosity’s landing site, collected from Mars orbiters. A 3-D “virtual rover” version of Curiosity will follow the path of the real rover as it makes discoveries.
By downloading Unity and trying out the experience early, the public can reduce potential download delays during landing and offer feedback on the pre-landing beta version of the experience. By crowd sourcing — leveraging the wisdom and experience of citizens everywhere — NASA can help ensure the best experience across individual users’ varying computer systems.
“Technology is making it possible for the public to participate in exploration as they never have before,” said Michelle Viotti, Mars public engagement manager at JPL. “Because Mars exploration is fundamentally a shared human endeavor, we want everyone around the globe to have the most immersive experience possible.”
In collaboration with Microsoft, Corp., NASA has a number of forthcoming experiences geared for inspiration and learning in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). With Xbox, NASA is unveiling “Mars Rover Landing,” an immersive experience for the Xbox 360 home entertainment console. The experience allows users to take control of their own spacecraft using Kinect and face the extreme challenges of landing a rover on Mars.
The game will be hosted in the Xbox Live Marketplace and in a special destination on the Xbox Live dashboard dedicated to the Curiosity rover. The dashboard will also include pictures, video and more information about the mission.
Additionally, a new Mars experience in Kodu, which allows children to learn computational thinking by creating their own video games, is designed to help students learn about commanding a rover on a quest to make discoveries about whether Mars was ever a habitat, a place that supports life. Standards-aligned curricula for teachers will also bring these 21st-century computer skills directly into the classroom and into afterschool organizations supporting academic success and college readiness.
For quick access to discoveries on Mars as they happen, NASA’s “Be A Martian” mobile application, initially developed with Microsoft for Windows Phone, will be available on Android and iPhone as well. NASA is also planning a series of Mars exploration apps for the upcoming Windows 8 PCs.
“We are very excited to be working with NASA to bring innovation and exploration into the home. We continue to believe that as industry leaders, we have vested interest in advancing science and technology education,” said Walid Abu-Habda, corporate vice president, Developer & Platform Evangelism, at Microsoft. “We hope that through partnering on the Mars Rover experience, we spark interest and excitement among the next generation of scientists and technologists.”
Hand held Roving
For a cool, immersive view of Mars Rover Curiosity and other spacecraft, space enthusiasts can also use their Apple iPhones to access a new augmented-reality experience that “projects” 3-D images of robotic explorers for first-hand, up-close inspection. For those wanting a live, community experience, museums and civic groups worldwide are hosting Curiosity landing events, often with big-screen experiences and public talks.
“Multiple partnerships united around science literacy can really make a difference in reaching and inspiring more people around the world,” Viotti said. “NASA welcomes innovative collaborations that inspire lifelong learning and access to discovery and innovation.”
Information on all of these activities is available at: http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/participate. You can follow the Curiosity mission on Facebook and on Twitter at http://www.facebook.com/marscuriosity and http://www.twitter.com/marscuriosity.
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.