NASA's newest Mars rover faces a tricky landing, and scientists face an agonising wait…
On August 6 at 5:31AM GMT, NASA’s new Mars rover is scheduled to land on the surface of the red planet. Scientists will be holding their breath though, as there is not guarantee that the landing will be smooth.
This is because the satellite that NASA was relying on for coverage of the Mars Science Laboratory’s descent into Gale Crater has been forced to sit this one out after a manoeuvring system glitch. There are other spacecraft orbiting Mars that will monitor the landing, but between them they will not be able to provide live coverage of the last minute of the landing.
NASA’s Mars exploration program chief Doug McCuistion said of the situation, “We’re assessing what the issues are. There’s no impact to the landing itself. It’s simply how that data gets returned to us and how timely that data is.”
Provided everything runs smoothly however, the lab, nicknamed Curiosity, is expected to land inside a 155 kilometre wide basin that is thought to be one of the last resting places for the lost surface water of Mars. While today Mars is a cold, acidic desert, we know that was not always the case.
Previous orbiters and rovers have turned up evidence of water, including channels, and chemical signatures of minerals that form on Earth when water interacts with rock.
The landing spot, Gale Crater, is one of the lowest places on Mars’ surface. California Institute of Technology project scientist John Grotzinger said “It’s like a little bowl, capturing any water that may have been present there.”
“Water flows downhill, and if you don’t know anything else in advance, that’s where you want to go to find evidence of water.”
In addition to water, Curiosity will be looking for evidence that life could have ever existed on the red planet. In addition to water, the ingredients needed to support Earth-like life are carbon and an energy source, be it the sun or some chemical form.
NASA scientist Michael Meyer said of this “one of the main reasons we’re going to mars is to figure out whether life ever started there.”
“If in the second place in our solar system that we think life has a possibility and actually did start there, my conclusion would be that life is easy, it’s a natural process and the universe is just littered with places that have life.”
With a mass of around a tonne, Curiosity is so big that it cannot use the landing bags and thruster rockets that previous landers have used. To get around this, Curiosity uses a complex landing system that navigates through the unpredictable Mars atmosphere, deploys a massive parachute at supersonic speeds and fires up a rocket powered descent platform. The platform holds an aerial crane to lower the rover on a tether to the surface of Gale Crater and fly away.
NASA has nicknamed the landing process the “seven minutes of terror.” Thanks to the communications issues, that seven minutes will be followed by an agonising few hours while NASA waits for the data to arrive.