Mars tugging on approaching Curiosity rover

The gravitational tug of Mars is now pulling in NASA’s car-size geochemistry laboratory, Curiosity, for a suspenseful landing in less than 40 hours.

The gravitational tug of Mars is now pulling NASA’s car-size geochemistry laboratory, Curiosity, in for a suspenseful landing in less than 40 hours, according to a report from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory today (August 4.)

This artist’s scoreboard displays a fictional game between Mars and Earth, with Mars in the lead. It refers to the success rate of sending missions to Mars, both as orbiters and landers. Of the previous 39 missions targeted for Mars from around the world, 15 have been successes and 24 failures. NASA’s Curiosity rover, set to land on the evening of Aug. 5, 2012 PDT (morning of Aug. 6 EDT), will mark the United States’ 19th attempt to tackle the challenge of Mars, and the world’s 40th attempt. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Arthur Amador of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is Mission Manager. He said:

After flying more than eight months and 350 million miles since launch, the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft is now right on target to fly through the eye of the needle that is our target at the top of the Mars atmosphere.

The spacecraft is healthy and on course for delivering the mission’s Curiosity rover close to a Martian mountain at 10:31 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 5 PDT (1:31 a.m. Monday, Aug. 6 EDT). 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.

NASA video on Curiosity’s chilling descent to Mars: Mars Curiosity rover’s seven minutes of terror

The only way a safe-landing confirmation can arrive during that first opportunity is 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.

A dust storm in southern Mars being monitored by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter appears to be dissipating.

Curiosity was approaching Mars at about 8,000 mph (about 3,600 meters per second) Saturday morning (August 4). 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).

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.

EarthSky interview with the mission’s chief scientist: John Grotzinger on the Mars Curiosity rover

The big hurdle is landing. Under some possible scenarios, Curiosity could land safely, but temporary communication difficulties could delay for hours or even days any confirmation that the rover has survived landing.

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). 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.

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.

Bottom line: A report from NASA today (August 4) says that the gravitational tug of Mars is now pulling NASA’s car-size geochemistry laboratory, Curiosity, in for a suspenseful landing in less than 40 hours, according to a report from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory today.

Read more from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

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