Europe’s Mars Express spacecraft will lend its eyes and ears to NASA next week for the so-called “seven minutes of terror” in which the US agency will seek to land a rover on Mars.
As a sort of “European backup service,” the satellite will point its antennas at NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) as it approaches the Red Planet early tomorrow, Mars Express operations manager Michel Denis said.
It will then change direction again to face the Earth and relay the recorded data.
“We began optimizing our orbit several months ago so that Mars Express will have an orbit ... that provides good visibility of MSL’s planned trajectory,” Denis said.
The European Space Agency (ESA) craft will record MSL signal data tomorrow — “practically until it touches down,” before starting to retransmit via ESA’s 35m-diameter deep-space antenna in New Norcia, Australia.
NASA will attempt to put down the Curiosity, the largest and most sophisticated rover yet, for a two-year quest for signs of past life and water on Earth’s nearest planetary neighbor.
It will also collect data for a future human mission there.
The information gathered by Mars Express may prove crucial if anything goes wrong in the nail-biting seven minutes when the MLS, having entered the atmosphere at nearly 21,000kph, slows to under 3.6kph for a gentle landing.
Alongside the Mars Express, NASA’s Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will also track and relay signal data for what is expected to be a spectacular touchdown.
NASA is expected to confirm touchdown, relayed directly from Curiosity, at 5:31am GMT — after a delay of about 14 minutes for the signal to travel all the way from Mars, an ESA statement said.
“The Martians will know the outcome” long before the NASA team on Earth, Denis quipped.
If all goes well, the information gathered by Mars Express during the landing will boost scientific knowledge about the Red Planet’s atmosphere.
And if it does not ... well then the data can be used to analyze the causes of failure and improve future missions.
Denis said ESA’s network of Earth-bound antennae will also play their part, standing by to take over from NASA’s own if need be.
The Mars Express, launched in June 2003, represented ESA’s first mission to another planet.
Denis said he hoped the vessel could remain in orbit until 2018 or even 2020 — long enough for the launch of a follow-up European mission.