NASA's Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft made a trajectory correction maneuver late Saturday as it remained on course for delivering the mission's dune buggy-like rover, Curiosity, to a landing site Aug. 5 near a Martian mountain.
The spacecraft was "a couple million miles out" from Mars when the flight-path adjustment to adjust its trajectory by 1/40 of a mile per hour was made, said Mark Ryne, part of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) navigation team. The maneuver had been planned since before the spacecraft launched last November and required two brief thruster firings that lasted about six seconds.
"The spacecraft is out around the orbit of Mars right now, out in front of the planet," Ryne said. "The planet catches up to it. We don't hit Mars, Mars hits us."
Ryne, 57, brings Westside and Southern California roots to the mission. He graduated in 1972 from Culver City High School and also went to La Ballona Elementary School and Culver City Junior High. Ryne, who now lives in La Crescenta with his wife, said he always had an interest in science and took a lot of technical classes – including math, physics and chemistry – in high school.
He joined an aerospace class at Culver City High School that featured an airshow with Cessna-type airplanes landing on the football field, as well as free flying lessons as part of the curriculum.
As a Boy Scout, his troop went on field trips to Hughes Aircraft in El Segundo and he took an astronomy course, too, at Beverly Hills High School. Like most children raised in the greater Los Angeles area, Ryne also recalled grade-school trips to the planetarium at the Griffith Park Observatory.
After high school, Ryne attended San Diego State University where he earned a degree in astronomy. While doing some scientific consulting for an oil company, a job at the NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory opened up and Ryne sent in a resume.
They liked what they saw.
Ryne's been with JPL navigation teams for nearly 30 years, starting with the Voyager 2 space probe that was launched in 1977 to study the outer solar system. He also worked on the Deep Impact project that launched a space probe in January 2005 to collide with a comet 267 million miles away in order to study its composition. The Deep Impact mission was described by NASA as "the equivalent of hitting a bullet with a bullet, while taking a picture from a third bullet flying by" and Ryne concurred that it was "particularly difficult."
His latest mission is easier.
"MSL is a relatively easy spacecraft to fly. It's very well behaved. It handles like a sports car, very smooth. Some of the spacecraft I've flown are like an old truck or jalopy," Ryne said. "MSL is very well behaved, so it makes it easy for us."
MSL is scheduled to land on Mars about 10:30 p.m. on Aug. 5 and has a two-year prime mission of studying whether the area has ever offered conditions favorable for microbial life. Curiosity, a six-wheeled mobile rover with 10 science instruments, will operate by remote control from Earth and features a high-powered laser that can zap rocks and then study their chemical elements.
"I'm apprehensive, but really looking forward to it," Ryne said of the looming landing on the Red Planet. "It's always something different. The Mars Rovers went down on airbags. This spacecraft is much bigger and that system won't work. We're trying something different so that adds to the uncertainty and also adds to the excitement."
Instead of airbags, NASA will deploy a "soft landing" technique that relies on a sky-crane method to lower the rover to the surface. After the parachute and heat shield separate, a descent stage will separate from the rover's back shell and use four steerable engines to slow the rover's descent and compensate for winds.
The spacecraft is loaded with the Mars Descent Imager, which will provide video of its landing that should give viewers a sense of what it's like to land on Mars. NASA engineers have been describing the spacecraft's entry, descent and landing as "Seven Minutes of Terror."
"I don't think the public appreciates how difficult it is," Ryne said. "It may look easy, but you have to figure out how to make things work in a very hostile environment."