NASA’s new supersized Mars rover is scheduled to touch down early next month on the Red Planet, and space scientists are feeling the pressure to produce supersized results.
The new rover, Curiosity, is about the size of a family car—twice as large as the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity. And because it’s packed with its own robotic arm and science lab, Curiosity is five times as heavy.
That means the modified airbags that safely bounced earlier rovers to the surface of the red planet won’t work. Instead, the space agency is trying out a sky crane and jet packs that slow the landing vehicle's descent from 13,000 miles an hour to zero in just seven minutes.
John Grunsfeld is associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission. He calls it "risky business." He says Curiosity's landing is the "hardest NASA robotic mission ever attempted in the history of exploration of Mars—or any of our robotic exploration."
Doug McCuistion, NASA’s Mars exploration director, admits the space agency’s success rate with Mars landings is only 40 percent.
"Landing on Mars is always risky," he says. "There are hundreds of discrete events that occur from release of the cruise stage to parachute deployments to heat shield deployments. All of these are unique and any one could cause problems."
And now, with less than three weeks to go before landing, there’s a complication. The orbiting spacecraft Odyssey was supposed to relay news of Curiosity’s landing back to Earth, but the machine is having navigation problems. And that could delay news of Curiosity’s touchdown by two hours.
NASA is having funding complications as well. Cutbacks in the space budget mean the next round of Mars missions has been consolidated, so NASA's next visit to the Red Planet won’t take off for at least six years.
Caltech project scientist John Grotzinger says he feels “an incredible sense of pressure” to do something “grand and profound.”
"If you ask the question about how life got started on Earth, how it evolved on Earth, you always ask 'what happens if those didn’t occur?' Is there someplace that you can compare to where that didn’t happen?'" Grotzinger says, "That’s Mars."
The keys are finding evidence of water and of the complex compounds that indicate the possibility of life on Mars. Scientists pinpointed the place most likely to contain them, a crater where ancient waters might have pooled.
But Grotzinger says even the landing spot, marked on a Martian map in an area colored bright red, holds the possibility of discovery. He says that “red stuff” is harder material that holds heat even at night and suggests that there could have been water that interacted and "maybe precipitated minerals" there.
But it can be difficult to get the public excited about “red stuff” that “precipitates minerals.” So NASA has launched what amounts to a marketing campaign, with museum sleepovers, an art tour, a Braille book on Mars, a smartphone app and an extensive new media PR effort.
Jeff Norris from Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory says they’ve even teamed up with Microsoft to create a free video game for XBox called “Mars Rover Landing.” They invited the granddaughter of one of the Apollo 14 astronauts to try it out. He narrates her attempts at burning off speed during re-entry, then deploying the parachute and separating the heat shield.
The actual landing is no game for NASA. Touchdown is scheduled for 10:31 PM, Pacific Time, on August 5th.