(Sen) - Anticipation is building this weekend as NASA's Mars Curiosity rover attempts the most technically challenging robotic landing ever devised. Curiosity is about to begin the final leg of its nearly nine-month, 566 million km journey - dubbed "seven minutes of terror" - from the atmosphere to the Martian surface. Curiosity is scheduled to land at 5.31am UTC Monday August 6.
Mars orbiters are ready to relay information about the landing back to Earth. NASA's Mars Odyssey, which has been orbiting Mars since October 2001, as reported by Sen recently adjusted its orbit to be able to relay signals from Curiosity back to the mission team on Earth. NASA also has another orbiter, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, on hand to relay data to mission control.
The European Space Agency (ESA) is also assisting with its Mars Express orbiter. Mars Express will start listening for Curiosity 45 minutes before it enters the Martian atmosphere. It will record data and send it to ESA's listening station at New Norcia near Perth in Western Australia.
Australia really is all ears for the Curiosity landing. In addition to ESA's antenna picking up signals from its Mars Express orbiter, the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex (CDSCC), one of three tracking stations in NASA’s Deep Space Network, will be relaying data to the mission team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The CDSCC antennas, managed on NASA's behalf by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), will receive signals from Curiosity directly and signals relayed by NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter.
Dr Phil Diamond, boss of CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science, said “The expertise of Australian personnel in space communications and CSIRO’s partnership with NASA will be showcased during this critical event in the Mars Science Laboratory’s mission. All of our technology and our people are ready."
About two minutes before scheduled touch down the rover will drop below the Martian horizon and be out of direct sight of Earth based telescopes. Data sent from Mars will take nearly 14 minutes to travel the 248 million kilometres to Earth, so it will be several minutes after the event before people back on Earth know if the landing has been successful.
Curiosity's landing site is the Gale Crater where the rover will spend two years looking for signs of microbial life.
The rover is the largest and heaviest ever built, ruling out an airbag landing used by previous smaller rovers. Scientists therefore devised a novel new technology - the sky crane. As Curiosity reaches the Martian atmosphere, at about 125 kilometres (78 miles) above the surface, small rockets will be used to guide the spacecraft through the atmosphere toward the surface. A very large parachute will be used to slow down the craft. Curiosity will separate from the sky crane but remain attached, allowing the crane to lower the rover, wheels down, to the surface. Curiosity will be ready to begin its mission and the crane will be released.
Artist's illustration of the sky crane lifting Curiosity to the surface. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The objective of the mission is to look for signs of whether microbial life ever existed or could still exist.
Curiosity has been designed to operate for a full Martian year (687 Earth days). The rover was launched on November 26 by an Atlas V rocket.
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, manages the Mars Science Laboratory mission for NASA.
The mission is costing US $2.5 billion.