UPDATE (8:45 p.m. ET): NASA has announced that they have successfully adjusted Odyssey’s orbital location — using a 6-second thruster burn — to be in a better position to provide prompt confirmation of the Aug. 6 landing of the Curiosity rover.
ORIGINAL: Hoping to take a little of the anxiety out of the risky Mars Science Laboratory landing, NASA is attempting to coax its planned real-time communications relay into better position to monitor the entire seven-minute descent and touchdown on Aug. 6, officials said Tuesday.
NASA had been counting on its Mars Odyssey spacecraft to provide key real-time telemetry data from a newly arriving sister probe, nicknamed Curiosity.
But a maneuvering system glitch last month left Odyssey in a different orbit than expected, possibly leaving NASA in the blind for several hours about whether Curiosity’s landing was successful or not.
To land the one-ton rover, engineers designed an exotic rocket-powered aerial platform to fly to the landing site and gently lower the robot to the ground. The system can’t be fully tested on Earth, which has different gravity and atmosphere.
Curiosity is to spend two years exploring Gale Crater, located near the Martian equator, to see if it has or ever had the ingredients and environments to support life.
Mars Odyssey’s position won’t directly impact the landing, just the time it takes for NASA to learn Curiosity’s fate.
Two other Mars orbiters, as well as the Earth-based Deep Space Network will be tuning in to monitor Curiosity’s descent and landing, but only Odyssey would be able to convey the data real-time and for the full duration of the descent and landing.
NASA public affairs officers say they expect to know later today if Odyssey’s move was successful.
Image: Computer-generated image of daybreak at Gale Crater, the destination of NASA’s Mars Science Lab. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech