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Here's to Curiosity!

Submitter: Michael Garrett
Description: On Monday the 6th of August at approximately 0731 CEST, NASA's Mars Curiosity Rover is due to land on Mars. Curiosity is about the size and mass of a Mini car, and its goal will be to study whether the Gale Crater area of Mars has evidence of past or present habitable environments.

There are many aspects of the mission that will excite even the most seasoned space observers. First of all, the sky-crane technique that has been developed to autonomously deliver Curiosity to the surface of Mars is nothing if not ambitious - and after watching the simulated video of how that all works (see also the image above), many a layman might also find it rather risky. Nevertheless, this has been chosen as the most practical approach, given the size and mass of the rover (significantly larger than the previous Mars rovers).

Another fantastic aspect of the mission is that for the first time, a video camera (the Mars Descent Imager - MARDI) onboard Curiosity will record video of the landing from the point at which the spacecraft's heat shield is jettisoned. The data will be stored on flash memory at about four frames per second and close to 1,600 by 1,200 pixels per frame. While we may see the first individual frames quite soon after the landing, we'll have to wait a while before the full resolution video is downloaded to Earth. The video promises to be an iconic record of man's desire to explore the solar system and beyond.

Finally, radio astronomers will also be playing a role in the landing phase of the mission. For example, our colleagues at CSIRO operating the DSN complex at Tidbinbilla will be NASA's prime tracking station during the landing phase. They will be measuring a series of distinct tones both directly and indeed indirectly (via other Mars orbiters) from the Curiosity spacecraft's x-band transmitter. Various coded tones will be transmitted back to Earth indicating the success (or otherwise) of each stage of the landing phase e.g. parachute deployment, various balance mass jettison events, heat shield separation, and finally touchdown. At the same time, the Parkes Radio Telescope will be used to receive and record the same tones during the first few minutes of the spacecraft's entry via backup UHF transmissions. Of course with the current distance between the Earth and Mars being about 14 minutes, Curiosity will have already landed (or crashed) well before we hear that the landing phase has begun.

Let's wish Curiosity and everyone connected with the project the very best of luck for Monday's landing. If you want a foretaste of what the entry and landing might be like, take a look at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=P4boyXQuUIw
Live coverage of the event should also be available e.g. via NASA TV: http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/nasatv/index.html

Copyright: NASA/ASTRON
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