Crunch time looms for bold Mars rover mission
Sunday 05 August 2012
A bold attempt to land a one-ton rover as big as a Mini Cooper on Mars will end in triumph or disaster tomorrow.
Scientists hope to receive the signal confirming that the six-wheeled robot, Curiosity, is safely on the planet's surface at 06.31 UK time.
Two thirds of Mars missions to date have failed, including Britain's ill-fated Beagle 2 lander which was lost on Christmas Day 2003.
But none has been as complex and daring as the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission, which aims to deliver the largest rover to land on the Red Planet.
Curiosity, costing £1.59 billion, is twice as long and five times as heavy as the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity which landed there in 2004.
Because of its size and weight, getting the vehicle on to the Martian surface presented a major challenge to scientists at the American space agency Nasa.
The dramatic solution involves dropping the robot on nylon tethers from a hovering "sky crane".
John Bridges, from the University of Leicester, one of two British scientists leading teams on the mission, said: "I'm cautiously optimistic. Space exploration is not for the faint-hearted.
"The previous rover landing used inflatable bouncing bags. Curiosity's just too heavy for that, so they developed the sky crane technique."
Curiosity's target is Gale Crater, near the Martian equator, where billions of years ago there may have been a large lake.
The rover is due to land close to a Mount Sharp, a 5.5 kilometre peak in the middle of the crater with clay deposits round its base.
Curiosity bristles with sophisticated instruments designed to discover if Gale Crater could ever have supported simple life.
For one Martian year - 98 Earth weeks - the rover will explore its surroundings using a robot arm to scoop up soil and drill into rock.
It also carries its own laser gun for "zapping" rocks up to 30 feet away. The laser will vaporise tiny amounts of material in a flash of light that can be analysed to reveal chemical data.
As well as carrying a stereo camera for panoramic shots, Curiosity has a magnifying imager that can reveal details smaller than the width of a human hair.
Samples will be analysed using a state-of-the-art onboard laboratory.
The landing site bears geological signs of past water, including what appears to be a lake bed on the floor of the crater. Channels that may have been carved by flowing water have also been identified.
Dr Bridges said: "There's this idea that Mars was warm and wet long ago, but we don't know how long there were standing bodies of water on Mars, whether they were short-lived or lasted hundreds of millions of years. That's important to the question of whether life ever existed there."
An Atlas V rocket carrying Curiosity blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, last November. The journey to Mars crossed 352 million miles of space.
Tomorrow's landing will begin with the capsule containing the rover first being slowed by friction as it enters the Martian atmosphere at 13,200mph, and then a supersonic parachute.
Closer to the ground, the "sky crane" descent stage is released, braking its fall with retro rockets.
Hovering above the surface, it will drop Curiosity on to the planet at the end of three 25ft nylon tethers.
Once the rover has touched down, the descent stage will break off and crash a safe distance away.
The battle for control of Stieg Larsson's £30m legacy
Geoffrey Macnab does not like the comedian's big screen debut
Look beyond the usual shows for the best festive telly
Michelle Nijhuis' daughter insists (s)he is, and she learnt a valuable lesson on gender in books
newsFormer soldier taped 33 of the animals to the floor and then stamped on them one by one
Robin Thicke named sexist of the year 2013
PAs cleared of fraud - and Nigella Lawson left reeling at 'ridiculous sideshow' of drug allegations and public dissection of marriage to Charles Saatchi
Cycle death inquest: Boyfriend hugs driver of 32 tonne tipper truck that killed his girlfriend
Paul Walker death caused by speed alone
Apollo Theatre collapse: Scores injured after ceiling collapses in London's West End
Exclusive: Young people ‘want UK to stay in Europe’: Four in 10 adults aged 18 to 24 are ‘firmly in favour’ of membership, poll shows
Tom Daley ‘is gay because his father died’ says UK evangelist
Iain Duncan Smith leaves Commons food banks debate early
Kiss and yell: Italian protester charged with sexual assault after kissing riot police officer
PM denies two child limit for benefits is part of Tory welfare policy
Anachronistic and iniquitous, grammar schools are a blot on the British education system
- 1 Sun will 'flip upside down' within weeks, says Nasa
- 2 Christmas comes early: Justin Bieber is 'retiring from music'
- 3 Iain Duncan Smith leaves Commons food banks debate early
- 4 Cycle death inquest: Boyfriend hugs driver of 32 tonne tipper truck that killed his girlfriend
- 5 Burglar steals video tapes of child abuse, hands them into police
- < Previous
- Next >
£40000 - £55000 per annum: Pro-Recruitment Group: This Big 4 giant is seeking ...
£35000 - £50000 per annum: Pro-Recruitment Group: Do you have personal tax exp...
£22000 - £37000 per annum: Capita Education Resourcing Permanent Team: This se...
£27000 - £30000 per annum: Capita Education Resourcing Permanent Team: Capita ...