Man on Mars? Maybe soon.
For now, scientists and engineers at La Canada Flintridge’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory are working on what they say is their most difficult mission to date: Landing a car-sized rover called Curiosity on the Red Planet Aug. 5.
"The Curiosity landing is the hardest NASA mission ever attempted in the history of robotic planetary exploration," John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, said during a press conference Monday. "While the challenge is great, the team's skill and determination give me high confidence in a successful landing."
NASA scientists hope to support President Obama’s stated goal of having a man or woman set foot on Mars by the 2030s.
The task for the next month is safely getting the Mars Science Laboratory – the official name for Curiosity – to the foot of Mount Sharp on Mars. The rover will enter the Martian atmosphere at 13,200 mph and in a seven-minute period must slow to less than 2 mph to safely touch down.
"Those seven minutes are the most challenging part of this entire mission," said Pete Theisinger, the mission’s project manager at JPL. "For the landing to succeed, hundreds of events will need to go right, many with split-second timing and all controlled autonomously by the spacecraft."
After it lands, staff at JPL will let the rover rest and make sure everything is working properly before ramping up equipment to test the nearby soil for signs of life. A few months after it lands, Curiosity will travel a short distance to the Gale Crater, where scientists hope to collect data from generations of rocks and soil.
"Be patient about the drive. It will be well worth the wait and we are apt to find some targets of interest on the way," said John Grotzinger, an astrophysicist at Caltech in Pasadena who is leading the Curiosity project. "When we get to the lower layers in Mount Sharp, we'll read them like chapters in a book about changing environmental conditions when Mars was wetter than it is today."
As part of the educational mission associated with the project, NASA and Microsoft announced the release of a new XBOX 360 game, called “Mars Rover Landing.” Players can control of their own spacecraft and try to land a craft on Mars.
Curiosity is scheduled to land at approximately 10:31 p.m. on Aug. 5. It was designed and assembled at JPL.
-- Bill Kisliuk, Times Community News
[Editor's note: A photo caption with an earlier version of this story misidentified the rover in the image.]