With its touchdown date close to approaching, the Mars Rover Curiosity has steadily been making its way through space on its nine-month, 570-million-km-long journey to the Red Planet, and today NASA announced that they have identified and ‘narrowed down’ the touchdown site for the rover, that is expected to reach Mars on August 6.
The marked area for landing is a 7km by 20km area in the Gale Crater, narrowing down the previously marked touchdown site of 20km by 25km, owing to Curiosity’s state of the art landing system that has not been previously used on any other rovers sent to the Red Planet. NASA has said that the reason for ‘tightening’ the touchdown site was that it would help less time intensive and would enable Curioisty to reach its target location, the 5km-tall mountain known as Mount Sharp situated in the middle of Gale Crater.
Pete Theisinger, rover project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California commented on the move, saying, "We have reduced the amount of time it takes to traverse to that point by several months - perhaps as many as four. And that allows a greater duration of prime mission at those key science targets and the accomplishment of science objectives."
Though months away, touchdown itself has already been scheduled. Curiosity’s entry capsule is expected to breach the Martian atmosphere by around 05:10 GMT on August 6. Its descent through the atmosphere, barring the weather, will take around six to seven minutes, hitting the Martian surface at 05:17 GMT.
Mars is notorious for having a bad track record of touchdowns but in order to ensure Curiosity’s success, its present deployment system allows for accuracy and control. The rover will be lowered to the Martian surface by a rig that uses both a parachute as well as a rocket-powered cradle. Speaking about Curiosity’s descent, senior NASA official, Dave Lavery said, "There is never a guarantee of success, but we have done everything prudently possible to ensure that our probability of success is as high as possible."
During the time spent in transit, NASA has been checking up on Curiosity’s systems and the tools and equipment it has on board which it will use to explore Mars. The space agency has reported that all 10 of the rover’s scientific instruments are in good working order however the space agency did raise concerns about one of the drills Curiosity will be using but rover project scientists, John Grotzinger, reassured reporters, "It is not a serious problem because we see so many ways to work around this."