Assembling Curiosity’s Rocket to Mars

by Ken Kremer on October 9, 2011

The first stage of the Atlas V rocket for NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission is lifted into an upright position for placement inside the Vertical Integration Facility at Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. A United Launch Alliance Atlas V-541 configuration will be used to loft MSL into space. Credit: NASA/Cory Huston

Assembly of the powerful Atlas V booster that will rocket NASA’s Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory rover to Mars is nearly complete. The Atlas V is taking shape inside the Vertical Integration Facility at Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The rocket is built by United Launch Alliance under contract to NASA as part of NASA’s Launch Services Program to loft science satellites on expendable rockets.

At Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, workers guide an overhead crane as it lifts the Centaur upper stage for the United Launch Alliance Atlas V in the Vertical Integration Facility (VIF). Once in position, it will be attached to the Atlas V booster stage, already at the pad. Credit: NASA/Jim Grossmann

The Atlas V configuration for Curiosity is similar to the one used for Juno except that it employs one less solid rocket motor in a designation known as Atlas 541.

4 indicates a total of four solid rocket motors are attached to the base of the first stage vs. five solids for Juno. 5 indicates a five meter diameter payload fairing. 1 indicates use of a single engine Centaur upper stage.

Blastoff of Curiosity remains on schedule for Nov. 25, 2011, the day after the Thanksgiving holiday in the U.S. The launch window for a favorable orbital alignment to Mars remains open until Dec. 18 after which the mission would face a 26 month delay at a cost likely to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Curiosity is set to touchdown on Mars at Gale Crater between August 6 & August 20, 2012. The compact car sized rover is equipped with 10 science instruments that will search for signs of habitats that could potentially support martian microbial life, past or present if it ever existed.

At the Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) at Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, the Centaur upper stage for the United Launch Alliance Atlas V is in position in the Vertical Integration Facility (VIF). It then will be attached to the Atlas V booster stage, already at the pad. The Atlas V is slated to launch NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission - the compact car-sized Curiosity Mars rover. Credit: NASA

With a unique view taken from inside Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) at Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, an overhead crane lifts the Centaur upper stage for the United Launch Alliance Atlas V. Once in position in the VIF it will be attached to the Atlas V booster stage, already at the pad. NASA/Jim Grossmann

Workers guide an overhead crane as it lifts the Centaur upper stage for the United Launch Alliance Atlas V into the Vertical Integration Facility (VIF). NASA/Jim Grossmann

An overhead crane lifts the Centaur upper stage for the Atlas V. NASA/Jim Grossmann

The final solid rocket motor (SRM) hangs in an upright position for mating to a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. NASA/Jim Grossmann

A crane lifts the 106.5-foot-long first stage of the Atlas V rocket for NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission through the open door of the Vertical Integration Facility at Space Launch Complex 41. Credit: NASA/Cory Huston

Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory Rover - inside the Cleanroom at KSC. Credit: Ken Kremer

Meanwhile NASA’s Opportunity Mars rover is nearing 8 continuous years of Exploration and Discovery around the Meridiani Planum region of the Red Planet.

Read Ken’s continuing features about Curiosity and Opportunity starting here:
Encapsulating Curiosity for Martian Flight Test
Dramatic New NASA Animation Depicts Next Mars Rover in Action
Opportunity spotted Exploring vast Endeavour Crater from Mars Orbit
Twin Towers 9/11 Tribute by Opportunity Mars RoverNASA Robot arrives at ‘New’ Landing Site holding Clues to Ancient Water Flow on Mars
Opportunity Arrives at Huge Martian Crater with Superb Science and Scenic Outlook
Opportunity Snaps Gorgeous Vistas nearing the Foothills of Giant Endeavour Crater
Opportunity Rover Heads for Spirit Point to Honor Dead Martian Sister; Science Team Tributes

About 

Dr. Ken Kremer is a speaker, scientist, freelance science journalist (Princeton, NJ) and photographer whose articles, space exploration images and Mars mosaics have appeared in magazines, books, websites and calanders including Astronomy Picture of the Day, NBC, BBC, SPACE.com, Spaceflight Now and the covers of Aviation Week & Space Technology, Spaceflight and the Explorers Club magazines. Ken has presented at numerous educational institutions, civic & religious organizations, museums and astronomy clubs. Ken has reported first hand from the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral and NASA Wallops on over 40 launches including 8 shuttle launches. He lectures on both Human and Robotic spaceflight - www.kenkremer.com. Follow Ken on Facebook and Twitter

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