Mars landing today

Artist's impression of Curiosity about to land on Mars

Artist's impression of Curiosity about to land on Mars.

THE GRAVITATIONAL TUG Mars is now pulling NASA’s car-size geochemistry laboratory, Curiosity, in for a suspenseful landing in just hours.

“After flying more than eight months and 367 million kilometres [350 million miles] since launch, the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft is now right on target to fly through the eye of the needle that is our target at the top of the Mars atmosphere,” said Mission Manager Arthur Amador of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

The spacecraft is healthy and on course for delivering the mission’s Curiosity rover close to a Martian mountain at 3:31pm Australian Eastern Standard time on Monday, August 6 (10:31pm Sunday, Aug. 5 US PDT, or 1:31am Monday, Aug. 6 US EDT). That’s the time a signal confirming safe landing could reach Earth, give or take about a minute for the spacecraft’s adjustments to sense changeable atmospheric conditions.

The only way a safe-landing confirmation can arrive during that first opportunity is via a relay by NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter. Curiosity will not be communicating directly with Earth as it lands, because Earth will set beneath the Martian horizon from Curiosity’s perspective about two minutes before the landing.

“We are expecting Odyssey to relay good news,” said Steve Sell of the JPL engineering team that developed and tested the mission’s complicated “sky crane” landing system. “That moment has been more than eight years in the making.”

WATCH THE LANDING LIVE

The following sites will be streaming live coverage of Curiosity’s landing:

NASA.gov

NASA’s YouTube channel

NASA UStream

All systems go

A dust storm in southern Mars being monitored by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter appears to be dissipating. “Mars is cooperating by providing good weather for landing,” said JPL’s Ashwin Vasavada, deputy project scientist for Curiosity.

Curiosity was approaching Mars at about 12,800 km/h, Saturday morning. By the time the spacecraft hits the top of Mars’ atmosphere, about seven minutes before touchdown, gravity will accelerate it to about 21,000 km/h.

NASA plans to use Curiosity to investigate whether the study area has ever offered environmental conditions favourable for microbial life, including chemical ingredients for life.

“In the first few weeks after landing, we will be ramping up science activities gradually as we complete a series of checkouts and we gain practice at operating this complex robot in Martian conditions,” said JPL’s Richard Cook, deputy project manager for Curiosity.

First pictures

The first Mars pictures expected from Curiosity are reduced-resolution fisheye black-and-white images received either in the first few minutes after touchdown or more than two hours later. Higher resolution and colour images from other cameras could come later in the first week. Plans call for Curiosity to deploy a directional antenna on the first day after landing and raise the camera mast on the second day.

The big hurdle is landing. Under some possible scenarios, Curiosity could land safely, but temporary communication difficulties could delay for hours or even days any confirmation that the rover has survived landing.

The prime mission lasts a full Martian year, which is nearly two Earth years. During that period, researchers plan to drive Curiosity partway up a mountain informally called Mount Sharp. Observations from orbit have identified exposures there of clay and sulphate minerals that formed in wet environments.

Information about the mission and about ways to participate in challenges of the landing, including a new video game:

http://www.nasa.gov/mars

http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl

Adapted from information issued by NASA.

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