Scheduled to arrive on the surface of the Red Planet on August 6 GMT, the NASA Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover Opportunity will benefit from logistics support provided by the Mars Odyssey spacecraft. The orbiter has just been moved to an orbit that will enable it to support the MSL landing.
The vehicle has been in orbit around the Red Planet for more than a decade, and has since supported missions including the Mars Exploration Rovers (MER) and the Phoenix Mars Lander. It is joined in orbit by the NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and the ESA Mars Express satellites.
Experts at the NASA
Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), in Pasadena, California, who manage the mission, announce that the old orbiter is currently on a path that will enable it to confirm the successful landing of Curiosity inside Gale Crater as soon as the rover touches down.
One of the reasons why Mars Odyssey is used as a relay is because the Earth will be setting below the Martian horizon from Curiosity's perspective as it lands, which means that the rover will have no way of communicating with Mission Control directly.
The orbital maneuver that placed the spacecraft on its correct path took place on Tuesday, July 24, when its engines were fired for a total of 6 seconds. This increased Odyssey's speed enough that it will arrive above MSL's landing coordinates 6 minutes ahead of the original timeline.
A safe mode that affected the vehicle in mid-July gave JPL investigators quite a fright. Previous instances of this happening led to the MSL remaining incapacitated for several months at a time. Fortunately, JPL engineers were able to address the problem in due time.
Without the repositioning maneuver, they explain, Odyssey would have arrived above Gale Crater two minutes after Curiosity landed. By 0531 GMT, on August 6, the orbiter is expected to send back data on the mission's success.
"Information we are receiving indicates the maneuver has been completed as planned. Odyssey has been working at Mars longer than any other spacecraft, so it is appropriate that it has a special role in supporting the newest arrival,” JPL Odyssey project manager Gaylon McSmith comments.
The MSL is a very innovative mission, because it uses a host of new technologies that have never been field-tested before. The most important one is the Sky Crane system, a hovering platform that will lower the actual rover onto the Martian surface, before crashing about a mile away.
In addition, 76 pyrotechnic blasts need to occur on the MSL in a tightly coordinated manner, if the rover is to be set down gently and accurately. The landing spot is currently located at the base of Mount Sharp, at the center of Gale Crater.