NASA prepares for incredible Mars landing

We spoke to the lead scientist on the Mars Science Laboratory mission to find out how landing preparations are going.

Landing on Mars

The Mars Science Laboratory is one of NASA's most amibitious missions to date.

NASA’s latest and biggest rover, the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), also known as Curiosity, is scheduled to land on the Red Planet and begin operations on 6 August 2012.

Speaking to Space Answers, Michael Meyer (program scientist for the MSL mission) told us how things were progressing: “It’s going well. One of the things we have to get to grips with is that this is the most complicated mission we’ve done and it’s designed to operate for a Mars year. So, we’re going to take it slow and make sure we don’t break anything in our rush to get data. It’s one of those things of having ten instruments on board. It’ll take a while to sort out what the internal model tells you and what’s the real thing when you get to Mars with your instruments. There’s a learning process involved. It’s all theory until you get to the surface.”

Of course, the actual method of getting to the surface is revolutionary, looking like something more akin to science fiction than a serious scientific mission to a planet in our Solar System. Despite a predicted high success rate, even NASA is starting to feel the heat of such an ambitious procedure. Michael explained to us why the Sky Crane design was picked for the mission: “It wasn’t just the desire to have something that looked like a Rube Goldberg device! It turns out, and this took me a while to catch on, that a lot of the elements of the Sky Crane are the same as those used in Spirit and Opportunity, such as retro rockets and the whole aeroshell design.

Mars landing

If successful, the Sky Crane design could be used for future missions to Mars.

“So parts of it are very similar to what’s been used before, it’s just used in a different way. What had happened is that the whole Sky Crane concept actually was a concept and one consideration when the air bags were being designed for the MER [Mars Exploration Rovers Opportunity and Spirit], but those rovers were light enough that air bags would work so they went with that design. The Sky Crane concept was still floating around though, and when it came to MSL we wanted to build a system that we could use not only for this mission but also for future missions. We needed to find out how we could get a metric ton to the surface. It turns out that by using the Sky Crane you get huge savings in not having to build a ramp.

“One problem with air bags is that they don’t scale well. As you try to get a larger payload onto the surface, you need larger and larger air bags. So it’s actually the case that you end up with lots of airbags and hardly any payload as you try and increase the weight. That was kind of considered a dead end technology for the largest things that we wanted to get to the surface.”

Of course, even Michael was feeling a bit of pressure with the landing. “I almost wish I could just pass the landing part and call in a couple of days away and find out how it went!”

MSL atmosphere

MSL will be able to steer itself as it hurtles through the Martian atmosphere, making a precise landing possible.

However, when (or if) everything goes to plan then MSL is set to be one of the greatest missions of all time. “One of the things that really makes this mission pretty exciting is that the amount of information that we have about the landing site from our orbital assets is phenomenal. So we’ve already plotted out likely pathways of where to go and what the sample is already, and it’s great to approach it with that sort of prior knowledge because when we find something that’s different it’ll provide us with an ‘aha!’ moment.

“The other exciting thing is that the instrumentation on MSL is fantastic. [There’s an] analytical lab that can work out the mineralogy of a rock, which is going to be a tremendous help. Then there’s the ability to actually look at the composition of things, including organics, and that is going to be a tremendous furthering of our understanding of the rocks that we’re finding.

“And then there’s a new instrument that hasn’t been used before which could end up being a great survey tool, and that’s the ChemCam laser. It shoots a laser at something within seven metres of itself, and it’s able to get a spectrograph of the plasma that’s generated, and from that you get the elemental composition.

MSL laser

The ChemCam laser on MSL will be one of its greatest assets.

Of course, one of MSL’s primary goals is to determine if Mars was once a suitable environment for life to gain a foothold. Using its variety of instruments the rover will be probing the surface for signs of organics to discern whether there are any traces of life. As Michael points out, “the 65 million dollar questions is are there organics made by Martian life?”

You can be sure that we’ll be keeping up to date with the progress the Mars Science Laboratory is making ahead of its landing on 6 August 2012, and we’ll be following its mission intently once it lands.

All images courtesy of NASA/JPL.

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