Mankind could only be a decade away from walking on Mars, a Nasa scientist has said, as the US space agency makes its final preparations to land a one-tonne exploratory rover – the largest yet – on the barren planet.A probe the size of a small car will hurtle through the Martian atmosphere at 13,000mph early on Monday morning using engineering which, if successful, could lay the path for the first manned Mars landing.
Using a giant £1.67bn heat shield, the world’s biggest supersonic parachute and eight rocket thrusters, scientists hope Curiosity, a super bot kitted out with 32 cameras and dozens of sampling instruments, will be the test of technological prowess needed to prove an astronaut could eventually descend on the Red Planet in the future.
“If we had the motive, if it was important enough I would say within 10 years we could be there,” Adam Steltzner, the lead mechanical engineer for the entry, told The Daily Telegraph.
“Putting men on Mars is not unachievable. It is just really hard and expensive. So if the world were to find itself with enough resources and the motivation, we could do it.”
Scientists will use a “guided entry” system to land the Curiosity rover, with jet boosters firing at the back of the craft to help her steer through the atmosphere towards the Gale crater landing site.
The descent is expected to reach more than 10 Earth Gs.
It will take a nail-biting “seven minutes of terror” for Curiosity to land, but 14 minutes until Nasa’s 100-strong team of scientists will discover the fate of the probe and whether a combined three centuries of human investment has paid off.
“There is a little bit of apprehension but you have to be just a little nervous every time you go to Mars,” Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Programme, said.
“Everyone is confident that they have done everything humanly possible to make sure that this will work. Now it’s a matter of putting it all together.”
Technicians have installed sensors on the heat shield, which is designed to detach as the parachute is deployed, to measure pressure levels and thermal impact during the entry phase.
The heat shield designed for Curiosity’s landing is very similar in size and type to the thermal shield on the Orion deep-space capsule, a craft currently in development which will carry four crew members.
Radiation data will also be collected during the descent to test whether man could tolerate emission fluctuations caused by solar storms from inside a capsule.
“We will learn an enormous amount about what it takes on guided entry visual, what the impacts are on the thermal protection systems and what the atmosphere looks like,” Mr McCuistion said.
“This coupled with the RAD (Radiation Assessment Detector) data really pushes us further into the future and the potential to get humans to Mars.”
Experts at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said conditions were “looking good” for the Mars landing on Monday morning, scheduled for impact just after 6.30am.
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