Curiosity's Mars landing on track, say scientists
NASA's Curiosity is scheduled to land on Mars on Sunday. A dust storm and a wobble have added complexity to the mission, but scientists say, 'we will get there and get there safely.'
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“We are doing everything we can to make sure that we are going to the right place,” said Tomas Martin-Mur, the mission’s navigation team chief. “I am confident that we will get there and get there safely.”Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Exploring Mars with Curiosity
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Also Thursday, scientists revealed that Curiosity already has delivered results, even before it lands.
Curiosity’s instruments are expected to yield a new understanding of Mars’ history and environment. The mission’s impact doesn’t end there, however. Curiosity is also expected to pave the way for future Mars missions, including the first human exploration. President Obama has set a goal of sending an astronaut to Mars by the 2030s.
That would be no small matter. Rather than the three days it took to reach the moon, an astronaut would endure a nine-month trip there and then another one to get home. Scientists are still trying to understand how they might guard against radiation astronauts would encounter. It’s a critical issue. Carrying a proper radiation shield would be both vital and burdensome.
Curiosity was equipped with a device, known as RAD, to measure radiation once the craft arrives. Mars, because of its thin atmosphere and weak magnetic field, lacks the ability to repel or absorb radiation, a trait that could have affected the planet’s ability to foster life.
About a year ago, scientists realized they could turn RAD on early, that they didn’t need to wait for Curiosity to get to Mars. The instrument was turned on 10 days after launch and was active for most of the spacecraft’s 81/2-month journey to Mars. It has already sent home a significant amount of data.
RAD measured radiation encountered by Curiosity along the way, outside the craft and inside, where an astronaut would be housed during a human-exploration “cruise.”
Although scientists are still digesting the data, early indications are that radiation outside the spacecraft carrying Curiosity was perhaps 100 times higher than inside the craft. Still, levels inside might have been a full fifth of the amount of radiation that NASA allows its astronauts to face over the course of their career — “not a full, lifetime dose, but not insignificant,” said Don Hassler, RAD’s principal investigator. A better understanding of deep-space radiation could help determine everything from spacecraft construction to when a human-exploration mission might launch to limit an astronaut’s exposure.
©2012 Los Angeles Times
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IN PICTURES: Exploring Mars