NASA's Mars Curiosity Rover Lands Successfully-UPDATE
UPDATE: THEY DID IT! Mars Curiosity landed safely on Mars as scheduled. Odyssey was in position to relay the good news. Congrats all around!
Follow us on Twitter @SpcPlcyOnline as we follow Curiosity down the to the surface.
ORIGINAL STORY: In two and a half hours, NASA's Mars Curiosity rover -- part of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission -- will land at the Gale Crater on Mars. NASA officials continued their drumbeat today that this is a risky mission and there are no guarantees the $2.5 billion spacecraft will land successfully. One way or the other, they insist, the United States will continue exploring Mars.
It will take 14 minutes for the signal to reach Earth. That magic moment is at 10:31 pm Pacific Daylight Time (1:31 am Eastern Daylight Time). NASA TV begins coverage two hours earlier.
The one-ton vehicle spacecraft uses a novel "sky-crane" landing approach that looks perilous in a YouTube video of the "7 Minutes of Terror" from when it enters Mars' atmosphere to when it lands on the surface. The signal that will tell the tale as to whether the landing worked will be relayed through NASA's Mars Odyssey spacecraft, already in orbit around Mars.
Odyssey is one of three spacecraft orbiting Mars right now. NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Europe's Mars Express are the others, so if a signal is not heard via Odyssey there are additional opportunities to get a signal. The next is two hours later. Curiosity can send a signal back directly by Monday afternoon. If nothing is heard by then, NASA will have to consider that the landing failed. NASA's Mars Exploration Program Director Doug McCuistion uses a graphic to remind everyone how hard it is to send probes to Mars with Mars "winning" 24 times and Earth only 15 when all the Mars flyby spacecraft, orbiters and landers launched by the United States, Soviet Union/Russia, and Japan are counted. (Russia's most recent failure, Phobos-Grunt, carried a small Chinese orbiter as well.)
A lot is riding on the mission scientifically. One concern is how much also is riding on it in terms of public and political support for the Mars program. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, CA, operated by the California Institute of Technology (CalTech) for NASA, is in charge of NASA's Mars spacecraft. JPL's Director Charles Elachi said during a "science chat" this afternoon that "we have done everything we can to be successful, but there is always some risk something will fail. If it does, we will learn why, get back on our feet, and continue exploration." He pointed out that the United States has had operating spacecraft on Mars for the past 15 years and he does not want to break the string of successes that includes the two Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity.
NASA's science chief, astrophysicist and former astronaut John Grunsfeld, echoed Elachi's theme. Noting that if Curiosity fails there will be a period of mourning for the 7,000 scientists, engineers, technologists and others who have worked on the program, "but we will be back on Mars because that's where the most interesting science is," he said.
The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) mission is next up in the U.S. Mars exploration queue; the orbiter's launch is scheduled next year. Spacecraft can be launched to Mars every 26 months when the two planets are aligned correctly in their orbits. The U.S. has launched spacecraft at every one of those opportunities since 1996 with the exception of 2009. Two failures in 1999 -- Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander -- resulted in programmatic changes, but did not stop the cadence of launches. It was technlcal challenges with MSL/Curiosity that bumped its launch from 2009 to 2011.
The future is far from clear, however. In February, budget constraints forced NASA to withdraw from cooperation with Europe on missions planned for 2016 and 2018. The budget request for Mars exploration was cut by 20 percent -- the only part of NASA's science portfolio to be targeted for such deep cuts.
NASA is now replanning its Mars exploration plan through the Mars Program Planning Group (MPPG). It is due to report this fall, and Grunsfeld said today it will be followed by additional studies by the planetary science community. A new plan will become known when the FY2014 budget request is released in February, Grunsfeld said. A key difference from the old plan, he emphasized, is that it will be a "NASA" plan -- both for human spaceflight and robotic spaceflight -- not just a NASA Science Mission Directorate plan.
The expectation is that it will include a 2018 Mars mission, but a question remains about whether there be will a U.S. mission in 2016. Europe continues to plan the 2016 ExoMars mission it was going to do with NASA. Russia has replaced NASA as its partner. That mission is a large "flagship" mission. NASA has a series of smaller probes that compete for opportunities through its Discovery program. A decision is expected in the next couple of weeks on which of three competitors will win. A Mars mission is one of the three contenders.
Whatever the longer term future will hold, all eyes will be on Curiosity tonight. If it succeeds, it could determine if the conditions for life ever existed on Mars. If it fails, "the science will be delayed," Elachi says, but NASA is determined that it will not doom Mars exploration.
Congress will have the final say on that, but there is no question but that NASA science programs, and Mars in particular, have considerable political support. Both the House and the Senate appropriations committee have recommended restoring some of the Mars funds that were cut in the President's budget request. Though the funding would come too late to save NASA's cooperation with Europe on ExoMars, it would support a new mission for launched in 2018. The House passed its bill that funds NASA on June 19; the Senate appropriations committee reported its version in April, but the Senate has not passed it (or any of the 12 FY2013 appropriations bills) yet.
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