Mars rover nears make-or-break landing attempt 0
The target landing area for NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission is the ellipse marked on this image of Gale Crater on Mars (top left). The ellipse is about 12 miles long and 4 miles wide (20 kilometers by 7 kilometers). (REUTERS/NASA/JPL-Caltech/ESA/DLR/FU Berlin/MSSS/Handout)
The Mars rover Curiosity, on a quest for signs the Red Planet once hosted ingredients for life, closed in on fringe of the Martian atmosphere on Sunday for 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 less than an hour 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 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.
“We’re rationally confident, emotionally terrified,” Adam Seltzner, leader of Curiosity’s descent and landing team, told reporters at a JPL briefing early on Sunday, as the spacecraft hurtled to within 161,000 km of its destination - less than half the distance between Earth and the moon.
The vessel was sailing through space at about 13,000 km per hour and steadily gaining speed from the tug of Martian gravity. As of 9:30 p.m. Pacific, the spacecraft was reported about a less than 14,500 km from the planet.
Flight controllers anticipated 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 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.
President Barack Obama’s top science adviser, John Holdren, was among the dignitaries visiting JPL on Sunday for the landing, along with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.
“It’s critically important for the nation because it allows us to stay on pace for what the president asked us to, getting humans to Mars in the mid-2030s,” Bolden told Reuters.
He added that success also was key to NASA’s international partners in 12 countries in maintaining public and government support abroad for their continued funding.
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.
PACKED WITH GADGETS
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 7 meters away to create a spark whose spectral image is analyzed by a special telescope to discern the mineral’s chemical composition.
Nearing the end of its journey encased in a capsule-like shell, Curiosity was essentially flying on automatic pilot, guided by a computer packed with pre-programmed instructions.
Mission control activated the craft’s backup computer on Saturday night, ensuring it will assume onboard command of the vessel should the primary computer fail during entry into the Martian atmosphere and its tricky descent to the surface. The ship also began warming up rocket engines that will be used in final descent and landing maneuvers.
Controllers had little to do Sunday evening but anxiously track Curiosity’s progress as it streaked toward Mars. It was expected to pierce the planet’s upper atmosphere at 20,921 km per hour, 17 times the speed of sound, to begin a descent and landing sequence NASA refers to as “the seven minutes of terror.”
“We’re all along for the ride,” Seltzner said.
Curiosity’s fate will then hinge on a complex series of maneuvers that include a giant, supersonic parachute deployment and a never-before-used jet-powered “sky crane” that must descend to the right spot over the planet, lower the rover to the ground on nylon tethers, cut the cords and fly away.
The sequence also involves 79 pyrotechnic detonations to release exterior ballast weights, open the parachute, separate the heat shield, detach the craft’s back shell, jettison the parachute and other functions. The failure of any of those would foil a successful landing, Seltzner said.
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.
From 154 million miles 248 million kilometers away, 1,400 scientists, engineers and guests were expected to tensely wait at JPL to learn Curiosity’s fate, among them film star Morgan Freeman, television’s “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek, comic actor Seth Green and actress June Lockhart of “Lost in Space” fame. Another 5,000 people will be watching from the nearby California Institute of Technology, the academic home of JPL.
In a good-luck tradition dating back to the 1970s, engineers in the control room at JPL plan to break out cans of roasted peanuts about an hour before landing.