Engineers Able to Narrow Landing Ellipse for Curiosity Rover


Engineers for the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover have now zeroed in to a more precise landing ellipse, now aiming for a landing spot that is closer to where the scientists ultimately want to be, the foot of Mount Sharp in the center of Gale Crater. It was possible to adjust landing plans because of increased confidence in precision landing technology.

“We’re trimming the distance we’ll have to drive after landing by almost half,” said Pete Theisinger, Mars Science Laboratory project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “That could get us to the mountain months earlier.”

The layers of rock and sediments located in the mountain are the prime location for research with the rover.

Curiosity is scheduled to land at approximately 10:31 p.m. PDT Aug. 5 (1:31 a.m. EDT, Aug. 6). Following checkout operations, Curiosity will begin a two-year study of whether the landing vicinity ever offered an environment favorable for microbial life.

Theisinger and other mission leaders described the target adjustment during an update to reporters on Monday, June 11, about preparations for landing and for operating Curiosity on Mars.

A June 2012 revision of the landing target area for Curiosity, the big rover of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission, reduces the area's size. It also puts the center of the landing area closer to Mount Sharp, which bears geological layers that are the mission's prime destination. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ESA/DLR/FU Berlin/MSSS

The landing target ellipse had been approximately 20 kilometers wide by 25 kilometers long (12 miles wide and 16 miles long). Continuing analysis of the new landing system’s capabilities has allowed mission planners to shrink the area to approximately 7 by 20 kilometers (4 by 12 miles), assuming winds and other atmospheric conditions are as predicted.

Even with the smaller ellipse, Curiosity will be able to touch down at a safe distance from steep slopes at the edge of Mount Sharp.

“We have been preparing for years for a successful landing by Curiosity, and all signs are good,” said Dave Lavery, Mars Science Laboratory program executive at NASA. “However, landing on Mars always carries risks, so success is not guaranteed. Once on the ground we’ll proceed carefully. We have plenty of time since Curiosity is not as life-limited as the approximate 90-day missions like NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers and the Phoenix lander.”

Since the spacecraft was launched in November 2011, engineers have continued testing and improving its landing software. Mars Science Laboratory will use an upgraded version of flight software installed on its computers during the past two weeks. Additional upgrades for Mars surface operations will be sent to the rover about a week after landing.

Other preparations include upgrades to the rover’s software and understanding effects of debris coming from the drill the rover will use to collect samples from rocks on Mars. Experiments at JPL indicate that Teflon from the drill could mix with the powdered samples. Testing will continue past landing with copies of the drill. The rover will deliver the samples to onboard instruments that can identify mineral and chemical ingredients.

“The material from the drill could complicate, but will not prevent analysis of carbon content in rocks by one of the rover’s 10 instruments. There are workarounds,” said John Grotzinger, the mission’s project scientist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “Organic carbon compounds in an environment are one prerequisite for life. We know meteorites deliver non-biological organic carbon to Mars, but not whether it persists near the surface. We will be checking for that and for other chemical and mineral clues about habitability.”

source: JPL

5 Replies to “Engineers Able to Narrow Landing Ellipse for Curiosity Rover”

  1. Putting the target selection on a spot – you just know that some of the down-selects are going to be unhappy because their previous landing ellipses were deemed less safe.

    But it also looks like Gale in particular, which IIRC had one problem and perhaps the crater seen in the picture, will be a safer landing now. And its major drawback, prolonged roving before entering the more interesting area, is reduced.

    With the new theory of snowmelt, the now hastened Gale ascent will be especially fruitful for understanding early habitability on Mars:

    “… because of the placement of Mars in the Solar System, the Martian orbital parameters are somewhat chaotic and the obliquity and eccentricity of Mars have varied significantly more than Earth’s in the past 5 billion years (see Laskar et al. 2004).

    … if the rotation axis of Mars was once highly tilted (greater than about 40 degrees), the ice at the poles would no longer be stable; it would actually sublimate into the atmosphere. Counterintuitively, at these high obliquity angles, the ice actually forms most stably around the equator. …

    This “snowmelt” can deposit material, over time forming sedimentary rocks. Order of magnitude calculations show that this process could create a significant enough layer to explain the rover observations.* …

    Based on their models, the authors provide half a dozen testable predictions for the Mars Science Laboratory at the Gale Crater, where this snowmelt process is predicted to be important.”

    * Referring to the sulfuric sediments that Spirit and Opportunity have seen, and the massive, many km deep sediments that is capping Gale crater mound over the clay deposits. According to the paper, as I understand it, it is windblown deposit. Then the 0.1 – 20 % over time of snowmelt period their rough chaotic orbit model constrains has cemented it.

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  2. I’ve seen the LZ from overhead, but never with so much detail in elevation(s). NO WONDER this site was chosen! Like a HUGE version of Crater Lake, in Oregon. My advice to Curiosity’s controllers is: Watch out for dust dunes and ponding! Remember what happened to Spirit and Opportunity when they got into the ‘soft stuff’….

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