NASA officials said Monday they will be taking their most sophisticated swing yet at answering the age-old question of whether there is life on Mars, with Curiosity, the space agency's newest Red Planet rover, set for a high-risk/high-reward landing in three weeks.
Curiosity will make its final approach to the Martian surface Aug. 6 at 1:31 a.m. EST, NASA administrators said in a briefing for reporters. However, this mission will not feature the airbag "bounce" landing that has defined previous NASA missions. Curiosity is using a newer and riskier propulsion system to land.
"The Curiosity landing is the hardest NASA mission ever attempted in the history of robotic planetary exploration," said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate.
The 1,982-pound Curiosity will have to decelerate from 13,200 mph to zero in just seven minutes. NASA has developed a propulsion system that will guide the craft through the Martian atmosphere. Once the rover has cleared the atmosphere, a parachute will deploy, slowing acceleration even more. Then the rover will be guided to the surface by a backpack fit with retro-rockets that will lower the rover on three nylon cords called a "sky crane."
"For the landing to succeed, hundreds of events need to go right, many with split-second timing and all controlled autonomously by the spacecraft," said Pete Theisinger, a project manager for the mission at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. One mistake could send the $2.5 billion project crashing with nothing to save it.
If successful, the 98-week mission hopes to collect information to determine if Mars ever supported life. The key elements the rover is looking for are water deposits, sources of energy and carbon — the three things necessary for Mars to be habitable by life, said Mr. Grunsfeld.
Scientists are optimistic about Curiosity's landing site: Gale Creator. Scientists believe that Mount Sharp's slope is the surest bet for water deposits and other life-supporting minerals and compounds.
NASA and Obama administration officials see Curiosity as a precursor mission for future human missions to Mars, a challenge set by President Obama by the 2030s. Curiosity's "radiation assessment detector" hopes to measure Mars' radiation levels to determine if a human mission is possible.
NASA is conducting a public outreach blitz to bring attention to Curiosity's mission. Museum sleepovers and a Twitter campaign called @marscuriosity hope to spark a younger generation's interest in space exploration.
NASA has even collaborated with Microsoft to bring the Curiosity landing to the family room. Curious individuals can become NASA scientists and land the Mars rover without an astro-engineering Ph.D. through their Xbox 360s.
"Because Mars exploration is fundamentally a shared human endeavor, we want everyone around the globe to have the most immersive experience possible," said JPL's Mars Public Engagement Manager Michael Viotti.
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