NASA has upped the ante on the August landing of Curiosity, the largest, most scientifically capable planetary rover ever built. By shrinking the size of its target landing zone, the Agency hopes to place Curiosity closer to its experimental target, while saving it months of travel time.
"We're trimming the distance we'll have to drive after landing by almost half," explained Pete Theisinger, Curiosity project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "That could get us to the mountain months earlier."
The mountain Theisinger is referring to is Mount Sharp, a 5-km mound situated in the middle of Gale Crater. The geological forces that gave rise to Mount Sharp have created untold layers of rock deposits, each of which, researchers expect, will provide a window into the planet's history; it's the perfect place for Curiosity to conduct its investigation into the Red Planet's past and present potential for supporting life.
The images featured here and below should give you an idea of the revision that NASA is proposing. On the lefthand side of this picture is an image of Gale Crater, featuring an ellipse that outlines a landing site NASA once proposed for the Spirit rover. (The Spirit Rover, which touched down in January 2004, eventually landed elsewhere.) On the right is the landing ellipse that had long been proposed for Curiosity. To give you a sense of scale, Gale crater measures about 96 miles in diameter. In other words: Curiosity's estimated landing ellipse was already tiny compared to Spirits'; but NASA wants to make it even smaller.
The image featured here, released yesterday by NASA, shows the newly proposed landing ellipse superimposed atop the previous one (i.e. one picture at right in the image above). According to NASA:
The larger ellipse, 12.4 miles (20 kilometers) by 15.5 miles (25 kilometers) was already smaller than the landing target area for any previous Mars mission, due to this mission's techniques for improved landing precision. Continuing analysis after the Nov. 26, 2011, launch resulted in confidence in landing within an even smaller area, about 12 miles by 4 miles (20 by 7 kilometers).
If you haven't seen how NASA intends to set Curiosity on Mars, you owe it to yourself to watch this video. Why? Because the two-ton rover will be lowered with cables to the Red Planet's surface from a hovering, rocket-powered sky crane. Yeah. (This whole video is pretty great, but those interested in the sky crane action will want to skip to the 2:00 mark.)
We're less than two months out from Curiosity's arrival. If all goes well, the rover should land at approximately 10:31 p.m. PDT Aug. 5 (1:31 a.m. EDT, Aug. 6). [NASA]