NASA launched the Curiosity rover on a trip to Mars last November. The rover is set to land on the surface of Mars on August 6 and originally NASA was targeting a large landing ellipse of 20 km x 25 km. That larger landing ellipse certainly gave a lot of room for error, but NASA has rethought that landing zone.
NASA is now targeting a significantly smaller landing ellipse that will put the rover closer to the base of Mount Sharp on the Martian surface. The new landing ellipse on the surface is significantly smaller at 7 km x 20 km. NASA feels hitting the smaller landing area will be possible thanks to the high-precision landing system that the rover is using.
The rover has thrusters that will guide the high-velocity phase of entry into the atmosphere of Mars. This is the first rover to use this technology, which was unavailable on previous missions to Mars. The goal of the smaller landing ellipse is to reduce the time it takes for the rover to roll over to its primary science location. The smaller landing zone, and less distance the rover needs to travel also reduces the chance of any incidents during travel time. NASA scientists are hoping Curiosity will find layered rock deposits at the site to provide new insight into past environmental conditions on the surface of Mars.
"We have reduced the amount of time it takes to traverse to that point by several months - perhaps as many as four," explained Pete Theisinger, the rover project manager at Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
"And that allows a greater duration of prime mission at those key science targets and the accomplishment of science objectives."