NASA’s $2.5 billion dream machine, the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) lands its rover, Curiosity, on Mars on Monday it will be the latest in a series of missions to the red planet.
Mission control engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Los Angeles acknowledge that delivering the one-ton, six-wheeled, nuclear-powered rover in one piece is a highly risky proposition under the best of circumstances, scheduled for 10.31pm on Sunday Pacific time (1.31am EDT on Monday/0531 GMT on Monday).
The landing is a daring and unprecedented maneuver that involves penetrating the atmosphere at a speed of 13,200 miles per hour (21,240 kilometers per hour), slowing down with the help of a supersonic parachute and dropping down gently with tethers from a rocket-powered sky crane.
The rover is carrying a chemistry kit that contains a rock-zapping laser, 17 cameras, a drill, radiation detectors, water sensors, and tools to scoop soil and check for carbon-based compounds that are the building blocks for life.
Out of the 14 attempts by space agencies around the world, only six have succeeded. NASA has fared better — with only one failure in seven tries.
Conditions on the surface of Mars are very harsh. Radiation is intense. Water exists, but almost never in liquid form. Reactive chemicals such as oxidants can accumulate over immense durations without being washed away or neutralised. So it’s perhaps no surprise that adding liquid broth made the soil fizz.
The landing site for the rover is a flat area known as Gale Crater, which lies near a mountain that scientists hope the rover will be able to climb in the search for sediment layers that could be up to a billion years old.