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Mars rover Curiosity adjusts course

2012-01-12 14:31

Los Angeles - Firing on all engines, Nasa's latest rover to Mars executed a course adjustment on Wednesday that put it on track for a landing in August.

Deep space antennas monitored the one-ton rover nicknamed Curiosity as it fired its thrusters in a choreographed three-hour manoeuvre.

"We've completed a big step toward our encounter with Mars," Brian Portock of the Nasa Jet Propulsion Laboratory said in a statement.

The course correction is the most important task Curiosity will perform during its 566-million-kilometre trip to the red planet, but it's not unprecedented. Previous robotic explorers have had to adjust their paths several times en route to landing.

As Nasa celebrated Curiosity's latest milestone, Russia's space agency grappled with its doomed Phobos-Ground probe.

Aim

Bound for a Martian moon, Phobos-Ground became stranded in Earth orbit soon after launching in November. After several failed attempts to put it back on course, pieces of the probe could plunge through Earth's atmosphere as early as this weekend.

Meanwhile, Curiosity had racked up 128 million kilometres and was travelling at 1 614.55km/h relative to the Earth.

The action began on Tuesday when engineers uploaded commands to Curiosity's onboard computers. Though it performed the move without human interference a day later, engineers were on standby in the off chance of a need to abort.

The team will spend the next week testing the spacecraft's communication system and other components. A second smaller path adjustment was planned for March.

If Curiosity did not tweak its route, it would miss Mars altogether because it was initially not aimed at the planet. Engineers did this by design to prevent the upper stage of the rocket that launched the spacecraft from hitting Mars.

Now that Curiosity has separated and is on its way, the team has several chances to fine-tune its path before touchdown. During the interplanetary cruise, the rover is tucked in a shell that will protect it during its plunge through the upper Martian atmosphere.

Curiosity, whose formal name is the Mars Science Laboratory, is aiming for a 154km-wide crater near the Martian equator that boasts a towering mountain in the centre.

Sky crane system

The six-wheel, nuclear-powered rover planned to drive to the lower flanks and examine the layered deposits to determine whether the area once had conditions capable of supporting microbial life.

Armed with a toolkit including a laser to zap into bedrock and a jackhammer, Curiosity is more sophisticated than previous Mars surface spacecraft. Despite its capabilities, it won't be able to detect life. Instead, it will hunt for the chemical building blocks of life during its two-year, $2.5bn mission.

Since Curiosity is too heavy to use a cocoon of airbags or rely solely on its parachute to safely reach the planet's surface, Nasa will attempt a new type of landing using a so-called sky crane system.

The parachute will detach and a rocket-powered platform will fire its engines, then lower the rover to the ground on a tether similar to the way hovering heavy-lift helicopters lower huge loads at the end of a cable.

Even before arrival, Curiosity has not been idle. Several weeks after launch, it turned on its radiation detector to monitor high-energy particles streaming from the sun and exploding stars. Once at Mars, it will measure radiation levels on the surface.

Comments
  • ohomen171 - 2012-01-12 15:17

    There is over $2.5 billion US dollars invested in this project. This is good to say that all is working well. The huge challenge will be the actual landing on Mars' surface in early August of this year. I will be at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California when the landing happens. It will be a historical moment. I've been sure for 50 years that Mars had life. We may get the proof with this rover.

      anthony.weineck - 2012-01-12 15:24

      Awesome.

      Willie - 2012-01-12 15:41

      Well said ohomen171 wonderful staff

      Gerard - 2012-01-16 22:36

      Hi Ohomen, I guess you are one of the engineers for Curiosity. I have been following this project and wish all of you at JPL the best of success with the landing on Mars, and accomplishing the mission. I hope we all get some good scientific discoveries from Curiosity. I also look forward to that day, hopefully not too far in the future, when humans will be able to make the 9-month voyage. If I had the chance, I would go.

  • Dewald - 2012-01-12 15:47

    1 614.55km/h relative to the Earth, thats slower than a figther plane! More like 30 000km/h?

  • Jimmy - 2012-01-12 16:04

    if AP numbers are right, then Curiosity will only be landing on Mars in just under 31 year, travelling at 1614.55km/h, not August. I think someone got their speeds wrong...

  • Ian - 2012-01-12 16:14

    According to the space.com website the correct speed is 10,300 mph (16,576 km/h)

  • juanne.coetzee - 2012-01-12 16:21

    Yo slam on the brakes! 128 million kilometers closer to Mars already? The thing was launched just the other day! Mankind, you're too cool.

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