The original landing site was selected to avoid the potential hazard of landing too close to the mountainous terrain of Mount Sharp in the center of Gale crater. However, since the Mount Sharp is the primary exploration site for the mission, landing closer is desirable if it can be done safely.
The recent change in landing sites was made possible based on increased confidence in precision landing technology aboard the MSL spacecraft, which is carrying the rover. “We’re trimming the distance we’ll have to drive after landing by almost half,” said Pete Theisinger, Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. “That could get us to the mountain months earlier.”
The landing area was originally an ellipse about 12 miles wide and 16 miles long. Using the analysis of the new landing system’s capabilities, the team was able to shrink the area to approximately 4 miles wide and 12 miles long.
The car-sized Curiosity rover will spend 2-years studying the area to determine whether the area ever offered an environment favorable for microbial life.
“We have been preparing for years for a successful landing by Curiosity, and all signs are good,” said Dave Lavery, MSL program executive. “However, landing on Mars always carries risks, so success is not guaranteed. Once on the ground we’ll proceed carefully. We have plenty of time since Curiosity is not as life-limited as the approximate 90-day missions like NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers and the Phoenix lander.”