Like Mars rovers Opportunity and its twin, Spirit, before it, that landed on Mars in January 2004, NASA’s next-generation Mars rover, Curiosity, is on course for landing on Mars next month, or to be more specific on August 6.
Curiosity, which NASA scientists have described as a $2.5 billion dream machine, was launched from Florida’s Cape Canaveral on Nov. 26, 2011 aboard an unmanned Atlas 5 rocket and is now nearing the end of its 354-million-mile (570 million-kilometer) trek through space.
The rover, which has six wheels and weighs nearly a ton (900 kilograms), is expected to land in Mars’ Gale Crater near Mount Sharp and will be on a two-year mission to find out whether microbial life once existed on the Red Planet.
The exact landing spot, however, according to scientists, will depend on the craft’s final steering maneuvers as it races toward Mars.
Landing successfully is quite a challenge, and Curiosity’s mission is pioneering a new landing method to enable use of a heavier rover. Curiosity is about twice as long and more than five times as heavy as any previous Mars rover.
The vessel transporting Curiosity will glide through the planet’s upper atmosphere, instead of “dropping like a rock” onto Martian soil, in order to ensure as secure and precise a landing as possible.
NASA mission directors say that unlike previous probes, Curiosity is too heavy to sustain an impact cushioned by airbags.
Instead, engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California say they have opted for a “sky crane” method — a “backpack with retro-rockets” controlling speed will gently deposit Curiosity on Mars.
In the seven minutes prior to landing, the spacecraft carrying the rover will decelerate from about 13,200 miles per hour to just 1.7 miles per hour, slowed by a giant parachute.
“Those seven minutes are the most challenging part of this entire mission,” said the JPL’s Mars Science Laboratory project manager, Pete Theisinger.
According to NASA, Opportunity and its rover twin, Spirit, completed their three-month prime missions on Mars in April 2004. Both rovers continued for years of bonus, extended missions. Both have made important discoveries about wet environments on ancient Mars that may have been favorable for supporting microbial life. Spirit stopped communicating in 2010.