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NASA shoots for riskier Mars rover landing

Engineers from NASA upgrade robotic rover's software as it hurtles through space on its way to Mars

NASA scientists are taking a risk, aiming to land its super Martian rover closer to its ultimate destination but near a hazardous mountain slope.

"We're trimming the distance we'll have to drive after landing by almost half," said Pete Theisinger, Mars Science Laboratory project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "That could get us to the mountain months earlier."

And they're able to adjust the rover's landing site because, as the robotic rover hurtled through space on its journey to Mars, NASA engineers tested and updated its flight and landing software.

NASA reported that they will send more software upgrades to the Mars rover about a week after it lands.

NASA launched the $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory last November. Dubbed Curiosity, the SUV-size super rover has nearly completed an eight-month journey so it can soon begin its mission to help scientists learn whether life can exist, or has ever existed, on the Red Planet.

Curiosity, equipped with 10 scientific instruments, is expected to land on Mars in the early morning hours of August 6 to begin a two-year project to collect and analyze soil and rock samples.

Curiosity is set to join Opportunity, a NASA rover that has been working on Mars for more than six years. Opportunity has been working alone since another rover, Spirit, stopped functioning last year.

In a teleconference on Monday, NASA officials said that the agency's scientists have gained enough confidence in the precision of the landing technology aboard the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft to change its landing plans. The rover is now slated to touch down close to Mount Sharp, which is in the center of Gale Crater.

Scientists are eager to analyze the rock layers in the mountain to find out if the area has, or ever had, environmental conditions favorable to microbial life.

Prior to changing the target site, the craft was to land within an area measuring about 12 miles wide and 16 miles long. The new target site measures 4 miles wide and 12 miles long.

"We have been preparing for years for a successful landing by Curiosity, and all signs are good," said Dave Lavery, Mars Science Laboratory program executive at NASA. "However, landing on Mars always carries risks, so success is not guaranteed. Once on the ground we'll proceed carefully."

Lavery explained that unlike the Mars rovers Odyssey and Spirit, which had a life expectancy of three months, Curiosity has an expected mission length of a year.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, send e-mail to [email protected] or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed .

Read more about emerging technologies in Computerworld's Emerging Technologies Topic Center.

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