What will happen when Curiosity gets to Mars?

The spacecraft is healthy and on course for delivering the new Curiosity rover to Mars on August 5. What will happen when it gets there?

The Curiosity rover is due to make a daring landing on the Red Planet at 10:31 p.m. Sunday, August 5 PDT (5:31 UTC August 6). That’s the time a signal confirming safe landing could reach Earth – give or take about a minute for the spacecraft’s adjustments to sense changeable atmospheric conditions.

Mars tugging on approaching Curiosity rover

According to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California – which is overseeing the mission – the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft is healthy and on course for delivering the mission’s Curiosity rover to the Gale Crater on Mars. What will happen when it gets there?

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter snagged this global map of Mars on August 2, 2012 . One global map is generated each day to forecast weather conditions for the entry, descent and landing of the new Curiosity rover. The active dust storm observed south of Curiosity’s landing site on July 31 has dissipated, leaving behind a dust cloud that will not pose a threat to the landing. Go, Curiosity, go!

The new Mars rover is larger than previous rovers, about the size of a sports utility vehicle, or SUV. It’s essentially a mobile geochemistry laboratory. But it was a formidable engineering challenge to soft land a rover this large on the Martian surface.

Curiosity was approaching Mars at about 8,000 mph (about 3,600 meters per second) Saturday morning. By the time the spacecraft hits the top of Mars’ atmosphere, about seven minutes before touchdown, gravity will accelerate it to about 13,200 mph (5,900 meters per second). During the seven minutes that the rover descends to the Martian surface, it will have to slow its speed from 13,200 mph to zero.

How will we know it has landed safely? The news will come via a relay by NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter. Curiosity will not be communicating directly with Earth as it lands, because Earth will set beneath the Martian horizon from Curiosity’s perspective about two minutes before the landing.

Learn how the landing on Mars will take place via this amazing video.

Hear from the mission’s chief scientist

An artist’s concept of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft approaching Mars. The Curiosity rover is tucked inside the spacecraft’s aeroshell. For navigation purposes, the atmospheric entry point is 2,188 miles (3,522 kilometers) above the center of the planet. This illustration depicts a scene after the spacecraft’s cruise stage has been jettisoned, which will occur 10 minutes before atmospheric entry.The landing is set for late evening August 5, 2012 (early morning UTC August 6).

NASA plans to use Curiosity to investigate whether the study area has ever offered environmental conditions favorable for microbial life, including chemical ingredients for life. As for images from Mars’ surface, NASA says:

The first Mars pictures expected from Curiosity are reduced-resolution fisheye black-and-white images received either in the first few minutes after touchdown or more than two hours later. Higher resolution and color images from other cameras could come later in the first week. Plans call for Curiosity to deploy a directional antenna on the first day after landing and raise the camera mast on the second day.

Curiosity will attempt to land on Mars – in a daring and unprecedented series of steps involving pyrotechnics, a parachute, and a never-before-tried skycrane – at 10:31 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time on August 5 (5:31 UTC on August 6, 2012).

The rover will plunge into the Martian atmosphere at 13,200 mph (21,243 kph), protected by a heat shield. At 7 miles up (11 km), it will unfurl the largest parachute ever sent to another world (about 51 feet wide, or 16 meters) to start slowing down. Then eight rocket engines will fire to slow the spacecraft down even more. At a height of 66 feet (20 meters), the sky crane will lower Curiosity on cables to the Martian surface.

Artist’s concept: Curiosity rover on Mars. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The prime mission lasts a full Martian year, which is nearly two Earth years. During that period, researchers plan to drive Curiosity partway up a mountain informally called Mount Sharp. Observations from orbit have identified exposures there of clay and sulfate minerals that formed in wet environments.

Deborah Byrd