NASA’s next Mars rover, named Curiosity, is now undergoing crucial tests that are designed to simulate the harsh environmental conditions of the Martian surface that awaits the rover when she lands there in August 2012.
Curiosity, also known as the Mars Science Laboratory or MSL, is the size of a mini-Cooper. It was placed inside a 7.6 meter (25 foot) diameter high vacuum chamber at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Engineers are now conducting an extensive regimen of tests that will check out the performance and operational capabilities of the rover under Mars-like conditions.Since the atmosphere of Mars is very thin – roughly 0.6% compared to Earth – most of the air was pumped out to simulate the meager atmospheric pressure on the surface of Mars.
The internal chamber temperature was decreased to minus 130 degrees Celsius (minus 202 degrees Fahrenheit) using liquid nitrogen flowing through the chamber walls to approximate the Antarctic like bone chilling cold. Martian lighting conditions are being simulated by a series of powerful lamps.
Upon successful completion of the testing, all components of the MSL spacecraft system will be shipped to the Kennedy Space Center for final integration. This includes the cruise stage, descent stage and back shell.
MSL will land using a new and innovative sky crane system instead of airbags. Using the helicopter-like sky crane permits the delivery of a heavier rover to Mars and with more weight devoted to the science payload. Indeed the weight of Curiosity’s science payload is ten times that of any prior Mars rover mission.
MSL also features a precision landing system to more accurately guide the rover to the desired target than past missions, to within an ellipse about 20 kilometers long. After extensive evaluation, four landing sites where water once flowed have been selected for further evaluation. The final decision will come sometime in 2011.
Curiosity is about twice the size and four times the weight compared to NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity Mars Explorations Rovers which landed on Mars back in 2004. Opportunity continues to stream back science data from Mars after seven years. The fate of Spirit is unknown at this time as the plucky rover has been out of contact since entering hibernation in March 2010.
The science goal of Curiosity is to search the landing site for clues about whether environmental conditions favorable for microbial life existed in the past or even today on Mars and whether evidence for life may have been preserved in the geological record.
The rover is being targeted to an area where it is believed that liquid water once flowed and may be habitable. In particular the science teams hope to sample and investigate phyllosilicate clays, which are minerals that form in neutral watery conditions more favorable to the formation of life compared to the more acidic environments investigated thus far by Spirit and Opportunity.