Dramatic view of NASA’s Mars landing site

This spectacular image from a European spacecraft orbiting Mars shows the giant crater in which NASA’s latest lander, Curiosity, will attempt to touch down in just three days time.

Spectacular view of Gale Crater from Mars Express Credits: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum).

Mars Express’ High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) took the picture of Gale Crater which lies at latitude 5.4 degrees south and longitude 137.9 degrees east on the Red Planet.

Curiosity, otherwise known as Mars Science Laboratory, will employ a dramatic Skycrane technique previously described by Skymania to drop into the zone coloured blue here, at 05.31 UT on Monday August 6 (still Sunday evening western US time), while avoiding the central peak that has been newly dubbed Mount Sharp.

The colours are not real and are a type of code to describe the different types of terrain as derived from stereo image data. But the area where Curiosity will hopefully land unscathed to begin its work is thought to be a potentially good place to look for signs of former martian life because it may have been an old lake bed billions of years ago.

Gale Crater is 154 km wide and Curiosity will attempt to land within a 20km wide oval within this. There it will be able to trundle around seeking the best rocks to drill or soil samples to examine. The rover really is a science laboratory, condensed to the size of a Mini Cooper car, and will be able to analyse its samples to look for signs of organic materials and signs of how the planet’s geology and climate have changed over billions of years

Curiosity will try to assess assess whether Mars was ever habitable, in other words if it ever had an environment able to support small, simpe life forms called microbes. It carries the biggest, most advanced suite of instruments for scientific studies ever sent to the martian surface.

Mars Express will also help monitor Curiosity’s descent to the surface of the Red Planet. The spacecraft will begin tracking the NASA mission 45 minutes before it enters the martian atmosphere. An ESA ground station will also record vital signals.

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