U.S. MARS ROVER: EXPECTED TOUCH DOWN IN AUGUST 2012

Wall Street Journal recently reported that NASA’s one-ton mobile rover, called Curiosity, is expected to touch down on the Red Planet in early August 2012 for a two-year exploration of the Gale Crater near the Martian equator. Excerpts from the article below:

The biggest and best-equipped robotic rover ever launched to another planet is hurtling toward a rendezvous with Mars, in a $2.5 billion mission that tests the engineering limits of interplanetary exploration and takes the search for alien life to a new level.

If all goes well, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Mars Science Laboratory mission expects to land a one-ton mobile rover, called Curiosity, on the Red Planet in early August to begin a two-year exploration of the Gale Crater near the Martian equator. There, under pink skies and blue clouds, the six-wheeled robot will sniff, scan and, for the first time, drill for geochemical signs that Mars once was habitable.

Already, NASA has withdrawn from a joint venture to Mars with the European Space Agency, which plans to launch missions for several probes, including a lander, in 2016 and in 2018. After NASA pulled out, the European agency in March turned to Russia for help building and launching the spacecraft.

While NASA planners rejigger the agency’s Mars exploration program, Mission-operations engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., …ordered the final course correction for the Curiosity spacecraft, nudging it onto the last and most perilous leg of its nine-month, 352-million-mile voyage. which culminates with a landing attempt.

Bristling with sensors, antennas, a laser and a robotic arm, the Curiosity robot, about the size of a small SUV, is twice the length and four times the weight of any of the three prior rovers that explored Mars.

If events go as planned, the Curiosity spacecraft late on Aug. 5 will plunge into the thin Martian atmosphere at 13,200 miles per hour and quickly brake by swooping back and forth in aerodynamic S-curves, much like the Space Shuttle. It would be the first time a Mars-bound craft uses the braking maneuver.

Once the craft has slowed to 1,000 miles per hour, its computer is programmed to trigger an electronic ripcord and deploy the largest supersonic parachute ever made. The nylon parachute—70 feet in diameter—will slow the craft to just under the speed of sound. When it reached about a mile or so above the surface, the chute will be jettisoned and a cluster of eight landing rockets would fire.

If all goes well, the Curiosity spacecraft will film the last two or three miles of its descent in high-definition video at five frames a second, recording for the first time an actual landing on another planet. It may take months, however, for the full HD video footage to be relayed to Earth.”We will get a perspective that no one has seen before, of a spacecraft doing its final descent onto the Mars surface,” said deputy project scientist Ashwin Vasavada.

As a mobile laboratory, Curiosity will focus first on Gale Crater’s 14,700-foot-high central peak. Dubbed Mount Sharp, it appears to be an unusual layer-cake of clay and other sedimentary deposits that may be relics of ancient water flows and organic chemistry.

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