The next chapter of extraterrestrial exploration on the surface of Mars will begin early in the morning on Aug. 6 when NASA's latest Martian lander will deliver the new Curiosity rover for an experiment-filled science mission.
So far, all is "go" with the mission, according to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is tracking the unmanned spacecraft as it speeds toward Mars. On board is a high-tech new six-wheeled rover, named "Curiosity," that will begin a two-year schedule of experiments and investigation on the red planet.
"Curiosity remains in good health, with no significant issues currently in work," said a mission update Aug. 2 on NASA's Website. "The Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft remains on a consistent and stable course, well within the limits required to reach its target landing [site]."
Curiosity was launched Nov. 26, 2011 from Earth aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket and is scheduled to land the rover on the Mars surface at exactly 1:31 a.m. EST on Aug. 6, according to NASA.
Live coverage of Curiosity's Landing will be broadcast online on NASA TV beginning at 11:30 a.m. EST Aug. 6.
The Mars Science Laboratory mission is part of NASA's Mars Exploration Program, which aims to find out whether Mars has ever had an environment that could have supported life in its smallest forms.
To accomplish its mission, the Curiosity rover, which at about 10 feet long, nine feet wide and seven feet tall or about the size of a small SUV carries an assortment of special tools, including a geology lab, a rock-vaporizing laser and many cameras, to explore the area around the landing site, known as the Gale crater.
As designed, the 2,000-pound rover and its six-wheel, highly-flexible chassis will be able to roll over obstacles up to 29 inches high and travel at speeds up to 295 feet per hour, according to NASA.
To create the needed electricity that will operate Curiosity on its mission, power will be generated through the radioactive decay of plutonium using a radioisotope power system. The system is designed to function for at least one full Martian year, which is about 687 Earth days.
The latest mission follows the very successful NASA mission that landed two other exploratory rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, on Mars back in early 2004.
NASA has sent previous landers to Mars, including two successful Viking missions in the 1970s.
Curiosity is set to "analyze dozens of samples drilled from rocks or scooped from the ground as it explores with greater range than any previous Mars rover," according to NASA. "Curiosity is a bold step forward in learning about our neighboring planet, but this mission does not stand alone," said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA, in a statement. "It is part of a sustained, coordinated program of Mars exploration. This mission transitions the program's science emphasis from the planet's water history to its potential for past or present life."
The JPL, a division of Caltech, manages the Mars Science Laboratory for NASA's Science Mission Directorate.
The coolest place to watch the Mars landing, according to a story in The Los Angeles Times, might be Times Square in New York, where the event will be broadcast live beginning at 11:30 p.m. EST Aug. 5. " ¦ there is something so fun and festive about watching the rover descend in the middle of the night, with a group of fellow space geeks," the story reported. "The Toshiba Vision Screen that drifts high above Times Square will display live coverage of the Mars rover Curiosity as it completes its eight-month journey and lands on the Red Planet. If you do intend to go, bring your smartphone and headphones. NASA will be broadcasting the audio portion of its coverage on the online radio station Third Rock Radio. It can be streamed on smartphones and tablets through the TuneIn mobile app."