(Sen) - In November 2011, NASA launched the Mars Science Laboratory on an ambitious mission with an even more ambitious landing strategy. NASA has now announced that the landing area has been refined to a smaller ellipse than previously planned.
The new landing site will leave the Curiosity rover closer to its ultimate scientific destination, but also dangerously closer to Mount Sharp in the centre of Gale crater. The landing ellipse size has been reduced from 20 kilometres wide and 25 kilometres long to 7 kilometres wide and 20 kilometres long.
The reason behind altering the landing site is to get to the mountain sooner than originally planned after landing. "We're trimming the distance we'll have to drive after landing by almost half," explained Pete Theisinger, Mars Science Laboratory project manager.
"We have been preparing for years for a successful landing by Curiosity, and all signs are good," said Dave Lavery, Mars Science Laboratory program executive. "However, landing on Mars always carries risks, so success is not guaranteed. Once on the ground we'll proceed carefully. We have plenty of time since Curiosity is not as life-limited as the approximate 90-day missions like NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers and the Phoenix lander.”
The Mars Science Laboratory, which is carrying the Curiosity rover, is equipped with state of the art landing technology which allow for the change in plan. Curiosity should be able to land close to Mount Sharp without colliding with the mountain, thanks to an upgraded version of the landing software which was installed during the last two weeks.
Upgrades to the rover itself will be initialised after a safe landing, such as testing how Teflon debris from the drill could mix with powdered samples of rocks. Instruments on board will be able to identify how much Teflon is in the sample.
"The material from the drill could complicate, but will not prevent analysis of carbon content in rocks by one of the rover's 10 instruments. There are workarounds,” said John Grotzinger, MSL’s project scientist. "Organic carbon compounds in an environment are one prerequisite for life. We know meteorites deliver non-biological organic carbon to Mars, but not whether it persists near the surface. We will be checking for that and for other chemical and mineral clues about habitability."
Curiosity is expected to land at Gale crater on 6 August, and then begin a two year primary mission to investigate if Mars once had, or still has, conditions that might be suitable for microbial life.