Tuesday, December 10, 2013
By ALICIA CHANG The Associated Press
PASADENA, Calif. - After an 8½-month voyage through space, NASA's souped-up Mars spacecraft zoomed toward the red planet Sunday for what the agency hopes will be an epic touchdown.
Scientists comment on the seven cameras aboard the Curiosity Mars Rover, background, during a media briefing Thursday at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Curiosity is scheduled to land on Mars at 1:31 a.m. Monday. Its target is the Gale Crater.
The Associated Press
COOL THINGS THE MARS ROVER CURIOSITY CAN DO
PASADENA, Calif. - If you were packing for Mars, what would you bring?
NASA's latest tourist, the roving robot named Curiosity, will lug around a suite of gadgets to snap pictures, sniff, taste and even drill. It will study the environment to figure out whether the giant crater where it lands ever possessed a habitable environment for microbial life.
The six-wheel, nuclear-powered rover is far more tech-savvy than anything that has landed before on the red planet. Here's a glimpse of some of the cool things Curiosity can do:
• It carries a laser that can zap a hole in rocks up to about 25 feet away and identify the chemical elements inside. This point-and-shoot strategy saves time because if a rock looks boring, Curiosity can roll on.
• Its 7-foot-long robotic arm has a power drill at the end that can bore into rocks and soil. Like a scientist in a laboratory, it can transfer the ground-up powder to its onboard workbench to tease out minerals and sniff for organics, considered the chemical building blocks of life.
• What's the point of an extraterrestrial trip if you can't sight-see? Curiosity promises to be a shutterbug, toting around a set of 2-megapixel color cameras that can beam panoramas back to Earth. With YouTube fans in mind, it also has a video camera that will record the last few minutes of its hairy descent to Mars.
• Like Mars rovers before it, Curiosity carries a weather station to take daily temperature and pressure readings and record seasonal changes.
• Even before landing, Curiosity has been doing experiments, tracking radiation during the 8-1/2 month cruise to Mars. That should help NASA gauge radiation risk to future distance-traveling astronauts.
As sophisticated as Curiosity is, it won't be able to tell us whether primitive life existed on Mars once upon a time or if it's there now. The one-ton rover isn't equipped for that and its cameras are not powerful enough to see fossil relics -- if they exist.
Smarts aside, engineers also outfitted Curiosity with a sense of style. It boasts 20-inch aluminum wheels -- twice the size of the wheels on twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity that landed in 2004 -- with spokes made of titanium and cleats for traction.
Curiosity may be tricked out, but expect some slow going. Its top speed is one-tenth of a mile per hour.
-- The Associated Press
The fiery punch through the tenuous Martian atmosphere at 13,000 mph marks the beginning of "seven minutes of terror" as the Curiosity rover aims for a bull's-eye landing inside a massive crater near the equator.
Touchdown was set for 1:31 a.m. on Monday. NASA plans to broadcast the mission live, starting at 11:30 p.m. Sunday on www.nasa.gov.
The latest landing attempt is more nerve-racking than in the past because NASA is testing a new routine. Curiosity will steer itself part of the way and end on a dramatic note: Dangling by cables until its six wheels touch the ground.
That's the plan at least.
"Can we do this? Yeah, I think we can do this. I'm confident," Doug McCuistion, head of the Mars exploration program at NASA headquarters, said Saturday. "We have the A-plus team on this. They've done everything possible to ensure success, but that risk still exists."
Despite humanity's fascination with Mars, the track record for landing on it is less than stellar. Out of the 14 attempts by space agencies around the world to touch down on Earth's neighbor, only six have succeeded. NASA has fared better -- with only one failure out of seven tries.
In keeping with a decades-old tradition, peanuts will be passed around the mission control room at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory for good luck.
NASA will need it. The $2.5 billion mission comes as the space agency faces a financial crunch. It abandoned a partnership with the European Space Agency to send missions in 2016 and 2018 and, instead, is charting a new future for Mars exploration.
For now, NASA is counting on Curiosity to nail the landing. On the eve of landing day, engineers said the rover looked healthy and on course.
"We're now right on target to fly through the eye of the needle" at the top of the Martian atmosphere, said mission manager Arthur Amador.
Earlier in the week, a dust storm swirling to the south of the landing site gave the team some pause. Ashwin Vasavada, the mission's deputy project scientist and Mars weather forecaster, said the storm basically went "poof."
"Mars appears to be cooperating very nicely with us. We expect good weather for landing Sunday night," he said.
As Curiosity plummets to the surface, it will rely on the precisely choreographed use of a heat shield and supersonic parachute to slow its descent. Less than a mile from the ground, the hovering spacecraft will unspool cables to lower the rover.
Due to the signal time lag between Mars and Earth (it takes about 14 minutes for a signal on Mars to zip to Earth), Curiosity will execute the landing autonomously, following the half a million lines of computer code designed by Earthlings.
NASA warned that spotty communication during landing could delay confirmation for several hours or even days.
If successful, Curiosity will join another roving spacecraft, Opportunity, which has been exploring Mars since 2004.
The most high-tech Mars craft ever built, the nuclear-powered Curiosity is equipped with more than a dozen cameras, a weather station and tools to drill, taste and sniff the environment in search of the chemical building blocks of life.
Its target is Gale Crater near the equator, which scientists think is a place where water once flowed -- a good starting point to learn whether microbes could exist there. Rising from the floor of Gale is an impressive mountain where mineral signatures of water have been spied at the base.
Life as we know it requires three ingredients: Water, energy and carbon. The missing piece so far is finding carbon. One of Curiosity's main tasks is to drive to the mountain, chisel rocks and dig into soil in search of the elusive element.
During its cruise to Mars, Curiosity turned on its radiation sensor and sent back data, which should help scientists better understand the risks that astronauts would face on a manned mission.
Before Curiosity can further explore, it must first stick the landing.
Weighing nearly 2,000 pounds, it is much heavier than Opportunity and can't bounce to a stop swaddled in air bags; it would break apart if it did. So engineers devised a new trick. Sunday will be the first time that the novel landing routine will make its debut.
Engineer Steve Sell said his eyes will be glued to his computer screen on landing day.
"I just have to keep reminding myself to keep breathing," Sell said.