Reset of primary and backup systems to default state is the first step in "hardest mission in history of robotic planetary exploration."
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The computers on NASA's Curiosity rover are being rebooted as the spacecraft approaches Mars for its Aug. 5 landing. The process, which occurs over four days, resets Curiosity's primary and backup systems to their default state in advance of a landing sequence that leaves little room for error.
The computers, called Rover Compute Elements, are redundant systems. The reboot process began on July 16 and will continue through July 20, the space agency said on its website.
NASA estimates that about seven minutes will pass from the time Curiosity enters Mars' atmosphere until it touches down in the area of Gale Crater. But it takes 14 minutes for signals from the rover to reach Earth, so there will be a significant time lag before NASA knows that Curiosity landed safely.
The spacecraft carrying Curiosity, called the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), launched in November from Cape Canaveral, Fla. The rover's landing will be "the hardest NASA mission ever attempted in the history of robotic planetary exploration," said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for the agency's Science Mission Directorate, in a news release.
Unlike earlier missions to Mars, the one-ton Curiosity rover won't use an "airbag" to cushion its fall. Instead, it will use what NASA refers to as a "sky crane" to set down, first employing a supersonic parachute to reduce its speed through the thin atmosphere, followed by retro-rockets and even nylon cords.
The goal is to lower Curiosity slowly so that it doesn't get covered with dust upon landing. If all goes as planned, the spacecraft will be traveling at a mere 1.7 miles per hour when it touches the surface. This NASA video, entitled Curiosity's Seven Minutes Of Terror, shows the stages of descent to Mars' surface.
"Those seven minutes are the most challenging part of this entire mission," said MSL project manager Pete Theisinger in NASA's statement. "For the landing to succeed, hundreds of events will need to go right, many with split-second timing and all controlled autonomously by the spacecraft."
The purpose of the mission is to study whether there is any evidence of habitable environments on Mars. Curiosity carries instruments to undertake science investigations, with power, communications, and tools for taking rock and soil samples. The mission is set to last 98 weeks, or one Martian year.
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