Fingers crossed for Curiosity: dramatic Mars landing set for early August
If you happened to find yourself on Mars early in the morning on 6 August you'd be about to witness something extraordinary: the arrival of the largest planetary rover ever to reach the Red Planet's surface.
The craft, named Curiosity, will land in Gale Crater and its landing will mark the beginning of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) project whose aim is to study Mars' habitability, climate and geology, and to collect data for a future human mission to the planet.
However, scientists remain on the edge of their seats as the hardest part of Curiosity's journey is yet to come, and one small landing error could throw off the whole mission.
Curiosity will enter the atmosphere at almost 21,000 kilometres per hour, and it will have just a few minutes to go from 21,000 km/hr to under 3.6 km/hr, or as space gazers like to call this moment of truth, the 'seven minutes of terror'.
This deceleration is essential for ensuring a gentle landing.
But luckily Curiosity won't be alone; an international support fleet will be on hand to make sure everything goes smoothly.
During descent, Curiosity will transmit a stream of data and two nearby NASA spacecraft (Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter) will track and relay the information from Curiosity.
Mars Express, which has been orbiting the planet since December 2003, will also be on duty for those critical minutes, relaying data that could later be crucial if anything goes wrong.
Specialists at the European Space Agency's (ESA) European Space Operation Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany have designed and tested a new pointing mode for Mars Express for its Lander Communications system to point toward the craft.
On 6 August, Mars Express will turn and start listening at approximately 07:10 CET. Confirmation of touchdown is expected directly from Odyssey at 07:31, and Mars Express will record MSL craft signal data between 07:10 and 07:38.
Once complete, Mars Express will turn again to point towards Earth and transmit the recorded data to the researchers on the ground at ESOC via the Agency's 35-m-diameter deep-space antenna based in New Norcia, Australia.
The data are expected around 08:40 and will be immediately transmitted to NASA for analysis.
Manfred Warhaut, Head of Mission Operations at ESA, comments on the long-standing cooperative partnership between NASA and ESA: 'NASA supported the arrival of Mars Express at Mars in 2003, and, in the past few years, we have relayed data from the rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Mars Express also tracked the descent of NASA's Phoenix lander in 2008 and we routinely share our deep space networks. Technical and scientific cooperation at Mars between ESA and NASA is a long-standing and mutually beneficial activity that helps us both to reduce risk and increase the return of scientific results.'
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Data Source Provider: European Space Agency (ESA)
Document Reference: Based on information from the European Space Agency (ESA)
Subject Index: Coordination, Cooperation; Scientific Research; Space & satellite research