Excitement is building at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. A little over eight months after its November 2011 launch, NASA’s newest and most advanced Mars rover is set to land on the red planet on Monday, Aug. 6.
The Curiosity rover carries the most sophisticated payload of scientific equipment ever used on Mars’ surface. It’s 10 times the size of earlier Mars rovers, the size as a Sports Utility Vehicle (SUV) rather than the golf cart size of previous rovers. Scientists hope Curiosity will help unlock the mystery of whether life could exist on the red planet.
So far, the Mars mission is on track but its biggest challenges will come when the spacecraft carrying Curiosity executes its entry, descent and landing on Mars. The procedure is so complex mission team members refer to it as “seven minutes of terror.”
Rob Manning, the Mars mission’s chief engineer, says setting Curiosity safely on Mars is the culmination of about a decade’s worth of “thinking, designing and building, involving thousands of people” from around the world.
The Mars Science Laboratory mission is the first of its kind, according to Manning. Although there have been a number of missions to Mars, Curiosity will be the first rover to robotically explore; drilling into rock and performing geochemistry, to gain a better understanding of the chemistry of Mars.
The work performed by Curiosity is expected to allow scientists to learn more about the early history of Mars and whether planet may have, at one time, been habitable for life. Other exploratory missions have shown Mars was a very wet planet.
Although a smaller Mars rover named Opportunity is still working, sending back valuable observational data after more than eight years on the red planet, Manning says Curiosity alone will allow scientists to gather and analyze data on the microscopic, chemical composition of Mars through the vehicle’s advanced on board geochemistry laboratory.
The Mars mission scientists also hope to learn about Mars’ environmental conditions on a microscopic scale, since Curiosity’s drilling function allows it to gather samples from a much earlier time in the planet’s history.
Data gathered from other rovers suggests Mars has water underground. Scientists believe that water was on the surface long enough to chemically alter rock and that the planet has a rich water-based history. Mission scientists now want to determine whether Martian water was around long enough for conditions to sustain life and for life itself to have evolved.
“If we can find signs that Mars was a habitable place and, even more excitingly, if we can find residue of life on Mars in the form of complex organic compounds, we might be able to say something about how life is not ubiquitous on this planet,” says Manning. “In every crack and every crevice of this planet you will find life, maybe Mars itself is the same way, and maybe life got started there too.”
Once safely on the ground, Curiosity won’t move from its landing spot for about five days, to allow the engineers on Earth to make sure the surface directly beneath the rover’s wheels doesn’t present an immediate hazard.
Manning doesn’t expect Curiosity to drill its first hole in a Mars rock until a month or two after landing.
According to NASA, the Mars Science Laboratory’s primary mission will last one Martian year, or about 687 Earth days, surviving at least one Martian winter in the process.
Star Trek’s Captain Kirk, actor William Shatner, narrates this video about NASA’s Curiosity rover, from its entry and descent through the Martian atmosphere to its landing and exploration of the Red Planet. (Video: NASA Television)
Rob Manning joins us this weekend on the radio edition of ‘Science World’. He talks about the Curiosity, the Mars Science Laboratory mission and what scientists hope to learn from its work. Check out the right column for scheduled air-times or listen to the interview with Ms. Wallace below.[audio://blogs.voanews.com/science-world/files/2012/07/080312-Science-World-Interview-Curiosity-Rob-Manning-Mars-Science-Laboratory-Chief-Engineer-at-JPL-080312.mp3|titles=One On One – Rob Manning – Mars Science Laboratory mission – NASA/JPL – Web]