Will NASA's Mars rover crash?
For NASA's Curiosity Mars rover to arrive undamaged on the surface of the Red Planet, a lot of things will have to go right.
So far, the scorecard for missions to¬†Mars¬†reads attempts 40, successes 14.
Not so good.
As NASA's latest mission to¬†Mars¬†heads closer to the Red Planet, the head of NASA's¬†Mars¬†Exploration Program, Doug McCuistion, acknowledged Tuesday that many things could still go wrong before its scheduled Aug. 6 landing date.
The one thing that worries him most is if the spacecraft's heat shield will detach as planned when the U.S.¬†Mars¬†Science Laboratory mission sets down a large, mobile laboratory on¬†Mars¬†‚ÄĒ the rover¬†Curiosity.
"If you look at the scorecard, Earth is doing less than 50 percent; less than 50 percent of Earth's missions to¬†Mars¬†have been successful," McCuistion, a former U.S. fighter pilot, said at the Farnborough Airshow south of London.
In the seven minutes before its planned touchdown, the U.S. spacecraft has a number of tasks it has to complete for¬†Curiosity to make a safe landing. First it must get rid of the heat shield and avoid a subsequent collision with it. Then it has to slow its descent to the Red Planet with the aid of a massive parachute as well as use rockets mounted around the rim of an upper stage. In the final seconds, the upper stage of the spacecraft acts as a sky crane, lowering the upright rover on a tether to the surface.
In spite of the challenges, McCuistion remains positive that the $2.5 billion mission will be a success and praises the unprecedented international cooperation between NASA and companies like German electronics company Siemens AG.
After all, NASA, the world's biggest space agency, enjoyed success with its twin¬†Mars¬†Exploration Rovers in the mid-2000s.
"I can't really give you a hard number .... but I think we are in a medium-to-low risk environment," McCuistion said.
After spending eight months travelling to¬†Mars,¬†Curiosity¬†will spend 23 months analyzing dozens of samples drilled from rocks or scooped from the ground as it explores¬†Mars¬†with greater range than any previous rover.
Mars¬†missions all share the same ultimate goal: Seeing whether Earth's nearest planetary neighbor can sustain life. President Barack Obama has set a goal of the 2030s for a manned mission to¬†Mars, but with budgetary constraints, NASA faces a tough task defending its current $18 billion annual budget.
NASA is hoping a scorecard of 15 successful trips to¬†Mars¬†will help in that task.