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NASA landing Curiosity, science, and technology on Mars

Curiosity approaches Mars, and artist’s concept. Image credit: NASA

Go to NASA TV or Ustream, now.  Otherwise you may be missing your ‘Apollo’ moment .  In about an hour’s time the NASA control room in Pasadena will be strained, hushed, waiting to hear these joyful words, “touchdown signal detected.” The signal that the rover, Curiosity, has has landed safely on Mars.

After a picture perfect launch and a 254 day voyage the Mars Science Laboratory, Curiosity, is primed to descend to the  Gale Crater on the Martian equator at 3:31pm (AEST).

A safe landing on Mars

Landing a 899kg specialised roving science laboratory onto Mars is an audacious mission by NASA. The mass of the rover has presented  new technological challenges to NASA engineers. The airbag landing method of the previous three successful rovers was not a viable option for Curiosity.

This has given the NASA engineers the opportunity to trial technology that could be used for later human exploration missions.

As Curiosity enters the top of the Martian atmosphere, 125 kilometres, above the Martian surface, she will be travelling at about 21,960 kilometres per hour.  Then begins her “7 minutes of Terror”, her self-guided descent to the surface. Although NASA used this description initially for the May 25, 2008 landing of the Martian polar lander, Phoenix, it is still apt for the current challenge.

Curiosity’s sky-crane landing, and artist’s concept. Image credit: NASA

Of the 38 Mars space missions (fly-by, landers and rovers) since 1960 only seven have been successful. Curiosity’s guided descent is still considered less risky than that experienced by Spirit, Opportunity, and the Viking 1 and 2.

Why will Curiosity will go through her landing sequence unaided?  Simply radio signals will take some 14 minutes to be relayed from Mars to Earth.  When the mission controllers receive the first entry signals – Curiosity will already have been on the Martian surface for some seven minutes.

If previous landings are anything to go by.  you can expect the control room to be a sea of crisply-ironed blue NASA/JPL shirts. The landing to be accompanied by gleeful shouts, smiles, fist-pumping and manly hugs.

Experiencing this Curiosity moment

I am old enough to have experienced the first Apollo moment. I was one of the geeks who were at the CSIROTweetup for the launch last November. I will witnessing this hopefully historic event, again joining others at the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex. If you are in Canberra join us at the landing party.

In Melbourne the Space Association and the Victorian Space Science Education Centre have partnered for a Melbourne landing party. Again if you are not near these then grab your nearest iDevice or conference room and stream NASA live.

Snapshots for the folks back home

Within minutes of landing the first pictures will be taken by Curiosity.  These will be low-resolution black and white images. These very first images are likely to arrive more than two hours after landing, due to the timing of NASA’s signal-relaying Odyssey orbiter.

Curiosity’s many cameras. Image credit NASA/JPL

These first views will give engineers a good idea of what surrounds Curiosity, as well as its location and tilt. Once engineers have determined that it is safe they will deploy the rover’s Remote Sensing Mast and its high-tech cameras, a process that may take several days. Curiosity will start surveying its exotic surroundings.

As the rover descends it will acquire low-resolution colour pictures from it’s Mars Descent Imager (MARDI). These initial colour images will also help pinpoint the rover’s location. They, as well as one full-resolution image, are expected to be released the day after landing.

Additional colour images of Mars’ surface are expected some further 12 hours later from the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI). This camera, located on its arm, is designed to take close-up pictures of rocks and soil. When Curiosity lands and its arm is still stowed, the instrument will be pointed to the side, allowing it to capture an initial colour view of the Gale Crater area.

Once Curiosity’s mast is standing tall, the Navigation cameras will begin taking stereo pictures 360 degrees around the rover. These cameras can resolve the equivalent of a golf ball lying 25 metres away. They are designed to survey the landscape fairly quickly. If the mast is deployed on schedule, expect to see these pictures about three days after landing.

Let the science begin

The landing site is Gale Crater, an ancient impact crater 154 kilometres in diameter.  It holds a mountain rising five kilometres above the crater floor.

The impact crater is deep. The Gale mountain offers one of the deepest continuous sequence of rock layers in the solar system. Deep enough to provide access to an unprecedented cross-section of the global Martian geological history.

The slope of the mountain is gentle enough for Curiosity to climb. During its primary mission Curiosity will travel some 20 kilometres in total. Probably exploring not much beyond some intriguing areas near its landing site.

The pace at which Curiosity gets to the features of high scientific interest will depend on a number of things; the findings and decisions made after landing, including the possibility of finding the unexpected!

Earth and Moon from the Mars Reconaissance Orbiter in orbit around Mars 2007. Photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

Grab this opportunity and share it.  It’s fascinating to see what journeys begin from such real Martian moments of inspiration and challenge.

This article had an interesting time.  This is as originally submitted to The Conversation.  Unfortunately they could not contact me on the day of the landing as I was in Canberra in a radio -quiet zone.  After eventually making contact after the landing time this was re-edited and became; NASA’s Curiosity is on Mars safely – so now what?

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