JPL Teams, Curiosity Set For Historic Martian Exploration

Successful landing of the 1 ton rover Curiosity with 10 instruments, including those on powerful turret at the end of the arm will begin multi year search for the building blocks of life on Mars if life ever existed there. Image Credit: NASA/JPL

The rover Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Flight Control and Science teams at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., are bracing for success, as they begin final preparations to carry out “the hardest NASA robotic mission ever attempted,” said former astronaut John Grunsfeld NASA associate administrator for Space Science.

The daring landing of a large, mobile, multi disciplinary laboratory on Mars 150 million mi. from Earth on August 5 at 10:31 p.m. PDT  “will be the most important event in the history of  planetary exploration,” said Doug McCuistion, director of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters.

The primary goal of the mission is to find the primary building blocks for life on Mars, if it ever existed there.  If that proves to be the case,  there will be huge implications for science and theology.

Skycrane with four of its eight engines firing delivers Curiosity to the surface of Mars 150 million miles from Earth in a scene to be played out late Aug. 5 Pacific time and early Aug. 6 Eastern time. Image Credit: NASA/JPL

“If in just the second place in our solar system, [after Earth] that we think life is a possibility and [find that it] actually did start there, my conclusion would be that ‘life is easy’, and a natural process that indicates the universe is littered with places that have life,” said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters.

The primary feature of the Gale Crater landing site is Mt. Sharp, an 18,000 ft. central mountain with flanks that Curiosity will climb to examine the multiple layered deposits that make up the last 3.5 billion years of Martian geologic history and possible evidence of life’s building blocks.

“I think we all feel this incredible since of pressure on MSL to do something grand and profound and my feeling on that is that it is going to be, what it is going to be,” said John Grotzinger MSL project scientist from Caltech who is in charge of surface operations at the Gale Crater landing site.

Image of Gale Crater composed of data combined from three Mars orbiters shows a depth of detail of the more than 90 mi. wide crater and its 18,000 ft. central mountain. Image Credit: NASA/Martian

“We have done everything possible to pick the best site in a process led by the science community that went on for 5-6 years and started with almost 100 candidates. We whittled it down to a final 4 and then picked one of them, Gale Crater.  We think it is a good mate for the instruments on this mission that I think it is going to be thrilling,” Grotzinger said.

“Personally I just can not imagine being disappointed scientifically even if we don’t find carbon or some feature that might represent a strong indication that not only was it habitable but there may have been life there.

“In ascending Mt. Sharp we are going to go through the major eras in the environmental history of Mars that give us a basis of comparison with out own planet. If you ask the question how life got started and evolved on Earth,  what were the trigger points that brought us to the evolution of  animals and eventually humans, you always ask what would have happened if those events did not occur?  That too could be Mars,” said Grotzinger.

“Even in the case that life was never present on Mars, I still see it as an extraordinary opportunity to get a bearing on our own existence on Earth.”

Three generations of Mars rovers developed by JPL over the last 15 years are shown in the laboratory’s Mars Yard mobility system test facility. In foreground is the 1997 Pathfinder rover that pioneered the airbag lander used to carry the two Mars Exploration Rovers to the surface in 2004. AT far right is the 2012 Curiosity rover Earth testbed showing how far the U. S. space program has advanced between 1997-2012. Image Credit: NASA/JPL

As the MSL teams at JPL are ready for what lies ahead on Mars, a new NASA collaboration with Microsoft Corp. is ready to keep students,  and the public as a whole,  informed about MSL’s landing and surface science mission with a range of Web features.

“Technology is making it possible for the public to participate in exploration as they never have before,” said Michelle Viotti, Mars public engagement manager at JPL. “Because Mars exploration is fundamentally a shared human endeavor, we want everyone around the globe to have the most immersive experience possible.”

Martian fans can help NASA test-drive a new 3-D interactive experience that will allow the public to follow along with Curiosity’s discoveries on Mars. Using “Unity,” a game development tool, a 3-D “virtual rover” version of Curiosity can follow the path of the real rover against Gale Crater terrain graphics created from Mars orbiter images.

The Curiosity Earth testbed is an exact duplicate of the MSL rover about to land on Mars except the testbed does not have a nuclear power source, but rather electric cord power. The vehicle here is being used for a science turret test. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL

Microsoft officials say that by downloading Unity and trying out the experience early, the public can reduce potential download delays during landing and offer feedback on the pre-landing “beta version” of the experience. “By crowd sourcing—leveraging the wisdom and experience of citizens everywhere—NASA can help ensure the best experience across individual users’ varying computer systems,”  Microsoft says.

“We are very excited to be working with NASA to bring innovation and exploration into the home. We continue to believe that as industry leaders, we have vested interest in advancing science and technology education,” said Walid Abu-Habda, corporate vice president, Developer & Platform Evangelism, at Microsoft.

Other Microsoft programs are specifically geared for the STEM objectives of inspiring learning in science, technology engineering and mathematics.

For example with Xbox, NASA is unveiling “Mars Rover Landing,” an immersive experience for the Xbox 360 home entertainment console.

Area is circled where much smaller Curiosity landing ellipse is located in this image color coded by terrain height where the yellow and browns are the highest regions and dark blue the lowest. Image Credit: NASA/JPL

The experience allows users to take control of their own spacecraft using  “Kinect” and face the extreme challenges of landing a rover on Mars. The game will be hosted in the Xbox Live marketplace and in a special destination on the Xbox Live dashboard dedicated to the Curiosity rover. The dashboard will also include pictures, video and more information about the mission.

Additionally, a new Mars experience in “Kodu”, which allows children to learn computational thinking by creating their own video games, is designed to help students learn about commanding a rover on a quest to make discoveries about whether Mars was ever a habitat for life.  Standards-aligned curricula for teachers will also bring these 21st-century computer skills directly into the classroom and into after school organizations supporting academic success and college readiness.

For quick access to discoveries on Mars as they happen, NASA’s “Be A Martian” mobile application, initially developed with Microsoft for Windows Phone, will be available on Android and iPhone as well. NASA is also planning a series of Mars exploration apps for the upcoming Windows 8 PCs.

Graphic depicts the Mars Science Laboratory in its cruise configuration as it will appear from now until late Aug. 5 when it will shed the circular cruise solar array section to allow the aeroshell–2 ft. wider than an Apollo spacecraft–to dive into the atmosphere of Mars carrying the Curiosity rover. Image Credit: NASA/JPL

“We hope that through partnering on the Mars Rover experience, we spark interest and excitement among the next generation of scientists and technologists, “ said Abu-Habda.

For a cool, immersive view of Mars Rover Curiosity and other spacecraft, people can also use their Apple iPhones to access a new augmented-reality experience that “projects” 3-D images of robotic explorers for up-close inspection. For those wanting a live, community experience, museums and civic groups worldwide are hosting Curiosity landing events in Gale Crater (below) , often with big-screen experiences and public talks.

”Multiple partnerships united around science literacy can really make a difference in reaching and inspiring more people around the world,” Viotti said. “NASA welcomes innovative collaborations that inspire lifelong learning and access to discovery and innovation.”

Image Credit: NASA/JPL







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  1. The date of the landing in the second paragraph should show “August” and not “May”. 🙂

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