Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Race to Mars

Curiosity at work on Mars (Image: Nasa artist's impression)
At 6:31 am GMT on Monday, man will return to Mars in the form of Nasa's Curiosity Rover. The car-sized rover has been designed to assess whether Mars ever had an environment which was able to support microscopic lifeforms.

Once landed, the culmination of a 36-week flight from Earth, the rover will use its onboard kit to gather information about the geology, atmosphere, environmental conditions and potential 'biosignatures' on Mars. Carrying three cameras, four spectrometers, two radiation detectors, an environmental sensor and an atmospheric sensor, Nasa say the mission will also be a step towards human exploration of the red planet.

However, one of the most impressive feats may be Nasa's capability to land Curiosity on the planet without damaging any of the expensive kit on board. Nasa say the mission will serve as "an entrée" to a further decade of Mars exploration because it will: "demonstrate the ability to land a very large, heavy rover to the surface of Mars; demonstrate the ability to land more precisely in a 20 km landing circle; and demonstrate long-range mobility on the surface of the red planet (5-20 km) for the collection of more diverse samples and studies".

Curiosity during testing on Earth (Image: Nasa)
The landing itself will be accomplished via a "soft-landing" technique employed for the first time on Mars. Instead of using the air bags typically used for such landings, the heavier Curiosity will use a sky-crane to deposit the rover on the surface of Mars. After a parachute slows the vehicle to nearly zero velocity, the rover will be released from the sky-crane and lowered to the ground via an "umbilical cord". As it is lowered, the mobility system will be deployed so that as soon as it hits the ground, Curiosity will be ready to roll. When the on-board computer recognises that touchdown has been successful, it will cut the umbilical cord and the sky-crane will "power away at full throttle" to crash land some distance away. You can see how this landing will work in Nasa's 7 minutes of Terror video.

In a Nasa statement, issued hours before touchdown the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL ) team said that the spacecraft was "healthy and right on course for a landing in several hours that will be one of the most difficult feats of robotic exploration ever attempted".

"Excitement is building while the team is diligently monitoring the spacecraft," said Mission Manager Brian Portock of Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "It's natural to get anxious before a big event, but we believe we are very well prepared."

You'll be able to watch coverage of the landing live on Nasa TV.
Follow the action on twitter by following the @MarsCuriosity.


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