NASA's car-sized Curiosity rover is headed for a two-year, $2.5 billion mission to study whether Mars ever had the elements needed for microbial life. With tightening budgets, it is the last hurrah for NASA's planetary program for quite a few years. The rover, about the size of a Mini Cooper, is scheduled to land late Sunday night, but it won't be easy.
SEVEN ANXIOUS MINUTES: Skimming the top of the Martian atmosphere at 13,000 mph, the Curiosity rover needs to brake to a stop — in seven minutes. Because of its heft, the 2,000-pound robot can't land the way earlier Mars spacecraft did, relying on air bags to cushion a touchdown. This time, NASA is testing a brand new landing procedure that involves gingerly setting down the rover similar to the way heavy-lift helicopters lower huge loads at the end of a cable. A communication time delay between Mars and Earth means Curiosity will have to nail the landing by itself, following the half-million lines of computer code that engineers uploaded to direct its every move.
THE MISSION: The rover has been traveling 8 ½ months for 352 million miles. During its two-year exploration, it will try to discover whether the giant crater where it lands had the right conditions to support microbes. But future missions would still be needed for more answers.
CURIOSITY'S TOOLBOX: It has 10 instruments, including a rock-zapping laser and a mobile organic chemistry lab. It also has a long robotic arm that can jackhammer into rocks and soil. It will hunt for basic ingredients of life, including carbon-based compounds, nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur and oxygen, as well as minerals that might provide clues about possible energy sources.
WHEN WILL IT LAND? If it survives, Curiosity will come to rest about 1:17 a.m. EDT Monday. About 14 minutes later, the fate of Curiosity may be known at mission control. NASA warns that with the vagaries of space communications, a day or two could pass before confirmation of a successful landing reaches Earth.
FOLLOW ALONG: mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/ or www.nasa.gov/ntv.
Associated Press, New York Times