Parking spot for Mars rover is picked for convenience

The rover being sent to Mars in search of extraterrestrial life has found its parking spot, and like many humans, its getting one as close to its destination as possible.

Scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge said this week that the rover Curiosity will land at the foot of the Red Planet’s Mount Sharp, allowing it to perform its key scientific mission and then wander up the mountain.

Scientists have narrowed the potential landing area to be used when Curiosity touches down in August from an area 12 miles by 16 miles to one 4 miles by 12 miles.

“We're trimming the distance we'll have to drive after landing by almost half,” Pete Theisinger, Mars Science Laboratory project manager at JPL, said in a statement. “That could get us to the mountain months earlier.”

Curiosity will look for signs that microbial life once existed on Mars, and will also collect core samples of rocks on Mount Sharp and the Gale Crater.

The spacecraft launched in December 2011 and is expected to land at 10:31 p.m. on Aug. 5.

The Mars rover has turned into a political pawn in heated discussions over proposed funding cuts to NASA that critics say will set deep-space exploration programs back significantly.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden put himself at odds with some members of Congress when he proposed a $300-million reduction in planetary science funding that would hit JPL particularly hard.

At a Congressional hearing earlier this year, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), whose district includes JPL, lambasted what he said amounted to “cannibalizing the Mars program, which gets closer to unlocking the secrets of Mars' past with each mission and discovery.”

Bolden had touted Curiosity as evidence of NASA's commitment to exploring Mars and said the agency could scale back the program without abandoning its scientific goals.

Staff writer Joe Piasecki contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2019, La Cañada Valley Sun
EDITION: California | U.S. & World