NASA narrows Mars rover landing site for August mission

By Chelsea Whyte on June 12, 2012 9:44 PM EDT

curiosity mars rover
The car-sized Curiosity Mars Rover will touch down on the Red Planet in August and spend two years drilling for samples. (Photo: NASA)

Curiosity, NASA's most advanced rover, is set to land on Mars in August, and a tweak in the mission plan will have the robotic vehicle touching down in a mountainous landscape that could pose a hazard. But it'll be worth it to get Curiosity closer to its ultimate destination for scientific operations.

"We're trimming the distance we'll have to drive after landing by almost half," said Pete Theisinger, Mars Science Laboratory project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "That could get us to the mountain months earlier."

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Rock layers within Mount Sharp at the center of Gale crater are the primary location for scientific research with the rover.

The previous landing site was 12 miles by 16 miles long, but mission planners were able to shrink their target to an area 4 miles by 12 miles long after analysis of the new landing system on the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft proved the craft carrying Curiosity could aim at a smaller spot without hitting Mount Sharp.

"It gets us closer to the base of Mount Sharp, where the primary science targets are," said John Grotzinger, MSL project scientist at the California Institute of Technology, according to WKYC News. That's assuming winds and other atmospheric conditions are as expected during the planned August 6 landing.

"However, landing on Mars always carries risks, so success is not guaranteed. Once on the ground we'll proceed carefully. We have plenty of time since Curiosity is not as life-limited as the approximate 90-day missions like NASA's Mars Exploration Rovers and the Phoenix lander," said Dave Lavery, Mars Science Laboratory program executive at NASA.

Curiosity has been en route to Mars since last November, carried across the cosmos by an Atlas V rocket. The lab and its rover will touch down in Gale Crater and begin a two-year study of whether the area around Mount Sharp ever provided a hospitable environment for microbial life.

There are concerns over contamination that could leech into samples from Curiosity's drill. Small  amounts of Teflon from seals within the drill will likely infect any samples taken as the rover bores into Martian rocks. The introduction of any outside contaminant may make it harder to identify organic carbon, the building block of life, that may be found on the Red Planet.

The presence of Teflon - the trade name for a chemical known as polytetrafluoroethylene - and other contaminants could lower the signal-to-noise ratio of Martian samples, making it tougher for the MSL team to analyze the material that Curiosity picks up, according to the Christian Science Monitor.

"It's not a serious problem, because we see so many potential ways to work around this that we could use," said Curiosity lead scientist John Grotzinger, of Caltech in Pasadena, according to CBS News.

The scientists say they could use the drill at a more gentle setting, which produces fewer contaminants, or they could abandon the drill altogether and simply scoop soil instead of boring into rock.

Whatever they decide, they have less than two months to figure it out before the rover touches on Mars.

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