The Mars Science Laboratory has landed safely on Mars, but that means the work for the brain trust at JPL is just beginning. Here’s what’s next.
First, the team at Mission Control needs to power up the rover, deploy and test the communications and science systems, and ensure that the area directly around the rover doesn’t present a threat to the vehicle. Potential threats include rocks, fines that could bog down Curiosity’s wheels, or uneven surfaces that could make certain movements unsafe.
Communications to the Earth come courtesy of NASA’s Deep Space Network and a pair of spacecraft in orbit around Mars, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Mars Odyssey. Because they’re in Martian orbit, they’ve got a direct line of sight to Earth for much longer periods of time than the rover on the ground. Here’s an amazing shot the Orbiter caught of Curiosity’s supersonic parachute deploying as planned.
Curiosity is equipped with the best cameras we’ve ever sent to Mars. We should even get to see HD video from MSL’s descent into the Martian atmosphere and the skycrane manuever, at least once it’s been radioed back to Earth. This could take a while–bandwidth from Mars to Earth is limited. Depending on the connection type, data rates from Mars to Earth vary from 500 bits/second to 256kbits/second. That means a seven minute HD video could take several days, depending on compression used.
While we wait for more news from Mars, including the rovers first drive, make sure you keep an eye on the JPL’s gallery of raw images. New images are popping up there as they come in from Mars, which I find fascinating to watch. You may also want to find out why the skycrane manuever isn’t likely to be used to land probes on Mars again, at least for the foreseeable future.