Come Monday, all eyes will be on the NASA Mars rover, Curiosity as after its steady eight month journey to the Red Planet, the Mars Science Laboratory or MSL is expected to touch down on the surface of planet, in the early hours of the morning, for what will be, according to NASA engineers a near ‘bulls eye’ landing.
The near one ton rover, which was launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida back in November of last year is all set to meet is August 6 landing on Mars, with touchdown at the Gale Crater expected to be at 05:31 GMT, the entire landing sequence being pre-programmed and automated with the NASA engineers, on a 13 minute time delay, patched in to watch and see just how their $2.5 billion mission pans out.
Curiosity, is a new breed of rover, being far more advanced than previous mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity and far heavier, weighing in at nearly 900kg, around five times as heavy as its previous counterparts. Of course because of this considerable weight, the rover will not be descending into the Martian atmosphere the conventional way; the ‘bouncing airbag’ technique used for the previous Mars rovers’ which involves a sort of crash landing, buffeted by inflated airbags around the rover which protects the rover on landing. But because Curiosity is far heavier, NASA engineers had to devise a new method of deployment which involved the creation of a jet supported crane that will hover over the Martian surface all the while lowering the rover cradle-like, making it land gently on the planet’s surface.
Of course with the time of year that it is on Mars, there is a likelihood that atmospheric conditions and martini weather could affect the landing, thus a need for a precise, near perfect entry into the planet’s atmosphere in order to ensure that the rover follows along its “keyhole” path set out by NASA engineers which will land it to within a kilometre of its landing site. Of course on its 560 million kilometre journey, NASA mission control has done slight course corrections, four in total but they are confident that Curiosity will reach its destination.
Speaking about the intended landing, head of NASA's Mars programme, Doug McCuistion said “We are about to land a small compact car on the surface with a trunk-load of instruments. This is a pretty amazing feat getting ready to happen. It's exciting, it's daring - but it's fantastic."
The MSL is the most sophisticated rover ever sent to Mars and its mission goal is to determine whether or not life ever existed on the Red Planet and whether conditions for life ever existed. Pete Theisinger, Curiosity's project manager adds, "This is a very complicated beast. The speech I made to the team is to recognize that we will have a priceless asset that we have placed on the surface of another planet that could last a long time if we operate it correctly, and so we will be as cautious as hell about what we do with it.”