NASA’s car-sized Curiosity Mars Science Lab (MSL) rover is now on course to touch down inside a crater on Mars in August following the completion of the biggest and most crucial firing of her 8.5 month interplanetary journey from Earth to the Red Planet.

Engineers successfully commanded an array of thrusters on MSL’s solar powered cruise stage to carry out a 3 hour long series of more than 200 bursts last night (Jan. 11) that changed the spacecraft’s trajectory by about 25,000 miles (40,000 kilometers) – an absolute necessity that actually put the $2.5 Billion probe on a path to Mars to “Search for Signatures of Life !”

“We’ve completed a big step toward our encounter with Mars,” said Brian Portock of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, Calif., deputy mission manager for the cruise phase of the mission. “The telemetry from the spacecraft and the Doppler data show that the maneuver was completed as planned.”

Mars Science Lab and cruise stage separate from Centaur upper stage just minutes after Nov. 26, 2011 launch. Thrusters on cruise stage performed course correction on Jan. 11, 2012. Up to 6 firings total will put the NASA robot on precision course to Mars.
Credit: NASA TV

This was the first of six possible TCM’s or trajectory correction maneuvers that may be required to fine-tune the voyage to Mars.

Until now, Curiosity was actually on a path to intentionally miss Mars. Since the Nov. 26, 2011 blastoff from Florida, the spacecraft’s trajectory was tracking a course diverted slightly away from the planet in order to prevent the upper stage – trailing behind – from crashing into the Red Planet.

The upper stage was not decontaminated to prevent it from infecting Mars with Earthly microbes. So, it will now sail harmlessly past the planet as Curiosity dives into the Martian atmosphere on August 6, 2012.

The thruster maneuver also served a second purpose, which was to advance the time of the Mars encounter by about 14 hours. The TCM burn increased the velocity by about 12.3 MPH (5.5 meters per second) as the vehicle was spinning at 2 rpm.

“The timing of the encounter is important for arriving at Mars just when the planet’s rotation puts Gale Crater in the right place,” said JPL’s Tomas Martin-Mur, chief navigator for the mission.

Video caption: Rob Manning, Curiosity Mars Science Lab Chief Engineer at NASA JPL describes the Jan. 11, 2012 thruster firing that put the robot on a precise trajectory to Gale Crater on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL

As of today, Jan. 12, the spacecraft has traveled 81 million miles (131 million kilometers) of its 352-million-mile (567-million-kilometer) flight to Mars. It is moving at about 10,300 mph (16,600 kilometers per hour) relative to Earth, and at about 68,700 mph (110,500 kilometers per hour) relative to the Sun.

The next trajectory correction maneuver is tentatively scheduled for March 26, 2012.

Curiosity rover launches to Mars atop Atlas V rocket on Nov. 26, 2011 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer

The goal of the 1 ton Curiosity rover is to investigate whether the layered terrain inside Gale Crater ever offered environmental conditions favorable for supporting Martian microbial life in the past or present and if it preserved clues about whether life ever existed.

Curiosity will search for the ingredients of life, most notably organic molecules – the carbon based molecules which are the building blocks of life as we know it. The robot is packed to the gills with 10 state of the art science instruments including a 7 foot long robotic arm, scoop, drill and laser rock zapper.

Curiosity’s Roadmap through the Solar System-From Earth to Mars
Schematic shows 8.5 month interplanetary trajectory of Curiosity. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Curiosity Countdown – 205 days to go until Curiosity lands at Gale Crater on Mars !

January 2012 marks the 8th anniversary of the landings of NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers back in January 2004.

Opportunity continues to operate to this day. Read my salute to Spirit here

Read continuing features about Curiosity and Mars rovers by Ken Kremer starting here:
8 Years of Spirit on Mars – Pushing as Hard as We Can and Beyond !
2011: Top Stories from the Best Year Ever for NASA Planetary Science!
Opportunity Discovers Most Powerful Evidence Yet for Martian Liquid Water
Flawlessly On Course Curiosity Cruising to Mars – No Burn Needed Now
NASA Planetary Science Trio Honored as ‘Best of What’s New’ in 2011- Curiosity/Dawn/MESSENGER
Curiosity Mars Rover Launch Gallery – Photos and Videos
Curiosity Majestically Blasts off on ‘Mars Trek’ to ascertain ‘Are We Alone?
Mars Trek – Curiosity Poised to Search for Signs of Life

Ken Kremer

Dr. Ken Kremer is a speaker, research scientist, freelance science journalist (KSC area,FL) and photographer whose articles, space exploration images and Mars mosaics have appeared in magazines, books, websites and calendars including Astronomy Picture of the Day, NBC, FOX, BBC, SPACE.com, Spaceflight Now, Science and the covers of Aviation Week & Space Technology, Spaceflight and the Explorers Club magazines. Ken has presented at numerous educational institutions, civic & religious organizations, museums and astronomy clubs. Ken has reported first hand from the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, NASA Wallops, NASA Michoud/Stennis/Langley and on over 80 launches including 8 shuttle launches. He lectures on both Human and Robotic spaceflight - www.kenkremer.com. Follow Ken on Facebook and Twitter

Recent Posts

Grabbing Samples from the Surface of Mars

As if the Mars Perseverance Rover and Ingenuity Drone were not exciting enough then the…

56 mins ago

Astronomers Can See the Impact Site Where an Asteroid Crashed Into a White Dwarf

When a star like the Sun reaches the end of its life, it becomes a…

1 hour ago

Curiosity Rover is Climbing Through Dramatic Striped Terrain on Mars

Just about every day we here on Earth get a breathtaking picture of Mars's terrain…

23 hours ago

A Giant Gamma-Ray Bubble is a Source of Extreme Cosmic Rays

Gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) are one of the most powerful phenomena in the Universe and something…

23 hours ago

New Study Addresses how Lunar Missions will Kick up Moondust.

Before the end of this decade, NASA plans to return astronauts to the Moon for…

3 days ago

How Warm Are the Oceans on the Icy Moons? The Ice Thickness Provides a Clue.

Scientists are discovering that more and more Solar System objects have warm oceans under icy…

3 days ago