By Mary O’KEEFE
The largest Mars science laboratory to date is well on its way to the red planet. The journey will take the spacecraft, carrying the rover Curiosity, 254 days to get from Earth to Mars. The launch on Nov. 26 was picture perfect, and the mission is off to a great start with no need for the scheduled early trajectory correction.
Engineers have planned six course adjustments during the spacecraft’s travels with the first originally scheduled for 15 days after launch. That adjustment was not necessary, so the next maneuver is scheduled for later this month or January.
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory/NASA Mars Science Laboratory rover named Curiosity is about the size of a Volkswagen. The rover will land in the Gale Crater area of Mars. Instruments on board will survey the surrounding area and assess potential sampling targets from a distance. For close-up investigation, there are instruments on Curiosity’s robotic arm. The samples of rocks, soils and atmosphere will be taken into the rover’s laboratory and analyzed. Instruments will also monitor the environment around the rover. Information on the Martian atmosphere will be gathered via the spacecraft’s heat shields during the landing process.
“I watched [the launch] from my home with my 3 and 6 year olds,” said Jennifer Trosper, MSL Surface Mission Manager at JPL.
Trosper has worked on several other Mars projects in the past and each time the launch and following mission is exciting for her.
“The amount of coordination and [technological] knowledge that has to work together is amazing,” she said.
The previous rover landings were with inflatable balloon-type cushions. The rover would land, bounce and roll to the location. This landing is a little trickier with a device called the sky crane that actually lowers the rover onto the surface with cables. Those cables are cut and the landing spacecraft jets off to another area of the planet.
“The question is did you get everything right in the simulation. The parachute [for example] has never been tested on Mars,” she said.
But reviewing models and testing new equipment is what JPL has done with great success. Spirit and Opportunity rovers that preceded Curiosity had a planned 90-day mission. Both operated for over six years on Mars, with Spirit’s mission officially ending in May 2011 and Opportunity still roaming and exploring.
With each mission to Mars, more technology is brought to either the surface or orbiting spacecraft. Each mission propels the knowledge of present and ancient Mars and whether it had, or has, the potential for life.
“From an engineering [point of view] the most interesting technology and the most difficult is the drill. This is the only time we will be drilling on another planet,” Trosper said.
The unknowns include how hard the Martian rocks are, however when the expected knowledge is collected, the next rover or science lab could drill even deeper, uncovering more geological history.
Trosper said the rover will gather information concerning the planet’s atmosphere as it lands. There is a 15-minute delay from when information is transmitted from Mars until it reaches Earth. The information and any images in those first few minutes will be grainy at best. It will be about two hours after landing before engineers and scientists will see a clear picture of the landscape.
“We are landing in the spring on Mars near the equator,” Trosper said.
As the spacecraft carrying the rover continues its mission to Mars, Trosper and her team will continue to work with models at the Mars Yard set up at JPL. They will work on Earth practicing for Curiosity’s debut on Mars on the evening of Aug. 5, 2012, Pacific Daylight Time.