Launch video provided courtesy of United Launch Alliance
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla – It is a mission years in the making. However, it would not be possible without the hard work of an army’s worth of engineers – and the systems that they built. How many different systems and engines are required to get the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover named Curiosity to the surface of the Red Planet? The answer might surprise you.
Including the two engines that are part of the Atlas V 541 launch vehicle, it will take 50 different engines and thrusters in total to work perfectly to successfully deliver Curiosity to the dusty plains of Mars.
Starting with the launch vehicle itself, there are six separate engines that power the six-wheeled rover, safely ensconced in its fairing, out of Earth’s gravity well. For the first leg of the journey four powerful Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) provided by Aerojet (each of these provides 400,000 lbs of thrust) will launch the rover out of Earth’s atmosphere.
The United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas launch vehicle has two rocket engines that provide the remaining amount of thrust required to get MSL to orbit and send the rover on its way to Mars. The first is the Russian-built RD-180 engine (whose thrust is split between two engine bells) the second is the Centaur second stage. There are four Aerojet solid rocket motors that help the booster and Centaur upper stage to separate.
The Centaur’s trajectory is controlled by both thrust vector control of the main engine as well as a Reaction Control System or RCS comprised of liquid hydrazine propulsion systems (there are twelve roll control thrusters on the Centaur upper stage).
MSL’s cruise stage separates entirely from the Centaur upper stage and is on the long road to the Red Planet. The cruise stage has eight one-pound-thrust hydrazine thrusters that are used for trajectory maneuvers for the nine-month journey to Mars. These are used for minor corrections to keep the spacecraft on the correct course.
Curiosity’s first physical encounter with the Martian environment is referred to as Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL) – more commonly known as “six minutes of terror” – the point when mission control, back on Earth, loses contact with the spacecraft as it enters the Martian atmosphere.
Video courtesy of Lockheed Martin
Even though Mars only has roughly one percent of Earth’s atmosphere, the friction of the atmosphere caused by a spacecraft impacting it at 13,200 miles per hour (about 5,900 meters per second) – is enough to melt Curiosity if it were exposed to these extremes. The heat shield, located at the base of the cruise stage, prevents this from happening.
The heat shield, provided by Lockheed-Martin, on MSL’s cruise stage is 14.8 feet (4.5 meters) in diameter. By comparison, the heat shields that were used on the Apollo manned missions to the Moon were 13 feet (4 meters) in diameter and the ones that allowed the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity to safely reach the surface of Mars were 8.7 feet (2.65 meters) in diameter.
At this point in the mission eight engines, each providing 68 pounds of thrust come into play. These engines provide all of the trajectory control during EDL – meaning they will fire almost continuously.
Shortly thereafter – BOOM – the parachute deploy. Then the heat shield is ejected. After the parachute slow the spacecraft down to a sufficient degree, both they and the back aeroshell depart leaving just the rover and its jet pack.
During the landing phase the “SkyCrane” comes alive with eight powerful hydrazine engines, each of which give Curiosity 800 pounds of thrust. Aerojet’s Redmond Site Executive, Roger Myers, talked a bit about this segment of the landing, considered by many to be the most dramatic method of getting a vehicle to the surface of Mars.
“Because of the control requirements for the SkyCrane these engines had to be very throttleable,” Myers said. “Keeping the SkyCrane level is a must, you must have very fine control of those engines to ensure stability.”
If all has gone well up to this point, the Curiosity rover will be lowered the remaining distance to the ground via cables. Once contact with the Martian surface is detected, the cables are cut, the SkyCrane’s engines throttle up and the jet pack flies off to conduct a controlled crash (approximately a mile or so away from where Curiosity is located).
Every powered landing on Mars conducted in the U.S. unmanned space program has utilized Aerojet’s thrusters. The reliability of these small engines was recently proven – in a mission that is now almost three-and-a-half decades old.
Voyager recently conducted a course correction some 34 years after it was launched – highlighting the capability of these thrusters to perform well after launch.
“Our engines have allowed missions to fly to every planet in the solar system and we are currently on our way to Mercury and Pluto,” Myers said. “When NASA explores the solar system – Aerojet provides the propulsion components.”
NASA’s Curiosity Mars Science Lab (MSL) rover is speeding away from Earth on a 352-million-mile (567-million-kilometer) journey to Mars following a gorgeous liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket at 10:02 a.m. EST on Nov. 26.
Enjoy the gallery of Curiosity launch images collected here from the Universe Today team and local photographers as well as NASA and United Launch Alliance.
“We are very excited about sending the world’s most advanced scientific laboratory to Mars,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said. “MSL will tell us critical things we need to know about Mars, and while it advances science, we’ll be working on the capabilities for a human mission to the Red Planet and to other destinations where we’ve never been.”
The mission will pioneer a first of its kind precision landing technology and a sky- crane touchdown to deliver the car sized rover to the foothills of a towering and layered mountain inside Gale Crater on Aug. 6, 2012.
Curiosity is packed to the gills with 10 state of the art science instruments that are seeking the signs of life in the form of organic molecules – the carbon based building blocks of life as we know it.
The robot is equipped with a drill and scoop at the end of its robotic arm to gather soil and powdered samples of rock interiors, then sieve and parcel out these samples into analytical laboratory instruments inside the rover.
The 1 ton Curiosity rover sports a science payload that’s 15 times heavier than NASA’s previous set of rovers – Spirit and Opportunity – which landed on Mars in 2004. Some of the tools are the first of their kind on Mars, such as a laser-firing instrument for checking the elemental composition of rocks from a distance, and an X-ray diffraction instrument for definitive identification of minerals in powdered samples.
Launch Video – Credit: Matthew Travis/Spacearium
Complete Coverage of Curiosity – NASA’s Next Mars Rover launched 26 Nov. 2011
Read continuing features about Curiosity by Ken Kremer starting here:
Atop a towering inferno of sparkling flames and billowing ash, Humankinds millennial long quest to ascertain “Are We Alone ?” soared skywards today (Nov. 26) with a sophisticated spaceship named ‘Curiosity’ – NASA’s newest, biggest and most up to date robotic surveyor that’s specifically tasked to hunt for the ‘Ingredients of Life’ on Mars, the most ‘Earth-like’ planet in our Solar System.
Curiosity’s noble goal is to meticulously gather and sift through samples of Martian soil and rocks in pursuit of the tell-tale signatures of life in the form of organic molecules – the carbon based building blocks of life as we know it – as well as clays and sulfate minerals that may preserve evidence of habitats and environments that could support the genesis of Martian microbial life forms, past or present.
The Atlas V booster carrying Curiosity to the Red Planet vaulted off the launch pad on 2 million pounds of thrust and put on a spectacular sky show for the throngs of spectators who journeyed to the Kennedy Space Center from across the globe, crowded around the Florida Space Coast’s beaches, waterways and roadways and came to witness firsthand the liftoff of the $2.5 Billion Curiosity Mars Science Lab (MSL) rover.
The car sized Curiosity rover is the most ambitious, important and far reaching science probe ever sent to the Red Planet – and the likes of which we have never seen or attempted before.
“Science fiction is now science fact,” said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters at the post launch briefing for reporters at KSC. “We’re flying to Mars. We’ll get it on the ground… and see what we find.”
“’Ecstatic’ – in a word, NASA is Ecstatic. We have started a new Era in the Exploration of Mars with this mission – technologically and scientifically. MSL is enormous, the equivalent of 3 missions frankly.”
“We’re exactly where we want to be, moving fast and cruising to Mars.”
NASA is utilizing an unprecedented, rocket powered precision descent system to guide Curiosity to a pinpoint touch down inside the Gale Crater landing site, with all six wheels deployed.
Gale Crater is 154 km (96 mi) wide. It is dominated by layered terrain and an enormous mountain rising some 5 km (3 mi) above the crater floor which exhibits exposures of minerals that may have preserved evidence of ancient or extant Martian life.
“I hope we have more work than the scientists can actually handle. I expect them all to be overrun with data that they’ve never seen before.”
“The first images from the bottom of Gale Crater should be stunning. The public will see vistas we’ve never seen before. It will be like sitting at the bottom of the Grand Canyon,” said McCuistion.
The 197 ft tall Atlas booster’s powerful liquid and solid fueled engines ignited precisely on time with a flash and thunderous roar that grew more intense as the expanding plume of smoke and fire trailed behind the rapidly ascending rockets tail.
The Atlas rockets first stage is comprised of twin Russian built RD-180 liquid fueled engines and four US built solid rocket motors.
The engines powered the accelerating climb to space and propelled the booster away from the US East Coast as it majestically arced over in between broken layers of clouds. The four solids jettisoned 1 minute and 55 seconds later. The liquid fueled core continued firing until its propellants were expended and dropped away at T plus four and one half minutes.
The hydrogen fueled Centaur second stage successfully fired twice and placed the probe on an Earth escape trajectory at 22,500 MPH.
The Atlas V initially lofted the spacecraft into Earth orbit and then, with a second burst from the Centaur, pushed it out of Earth orbit into a 352-million-mile (567-million-kilometer) journey to Mars.
MSL spacecraft separation of the solar powered cruise stage stack from the Centaur upper stage occurred at T plus 44 minutes and was beautifully captured on a live NASA TV streaming video feed.
“Our spacecraft is in excellent health and it’s on its way to Mars,” said Pete Theisinger, Mars Science Laboratory Project Manager from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California at the briefing. “I want to thank the launch team, United Launch Alliance, NASA’s Launch Services Program and NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for their help getting MSL into space.”
“The launch vehicle has given us a first rate injection into our trajectory and we’re in cruise mode. The spacecraft is in communication, thermally stable and power positive.”
“I’m very happy.”
“Our first trajectory correction maneuver will be in about two weeks,” Theisinger added.
“We’ll do instrument checkouts in the next several weeks and continue with thorough preparations for the landing on Mars and operations on the surface.”
Curiosity is a 900 kg (2000 pound) behemoth. She measures 3 meters (10 ft) in length and is nearly twice the size and five times as heavy as Spirit and Opportunity, NASA’s prior set of twin Martian robots.
NASA was only given enough money to build 1 rover this time.
“We are ready to go for landing on the surface of Mars, and we couldn’t be happier,” said John Grotzinger, Mars Science Laboratory Project Scientist from the California Institute of Technology at the briefing. “I think this mission will be a great one. It is an important next step in NASA’s overall goal to address the issue of life in the universe.”
Curiosity is equipped with a powerful 75 kilogram (165 pounds) array of 10 state-of-the-art science instruments weighing 15 times more than its predecessor’s science payloads.
A drill and scoop located at the end of the robotic arm will gather soil and powdered samples of rock interiors, then sieve and parcel out these samples into analytical laboratory instruments inside the rover. A laser will zap rocks to determine elemental composition.
“We are not a life detection mission.”
“It is important to distinguish that as an intermediate mission between the Mars Exploration Rovers, which was the search for water, and future missions, which may undertake life detection.”
“Our mission is about looking for ancient habitable environments – a time on Mars which is very different from the conditions on Mars today.”
“The promise of Mars Science Laboratory, assuming that all things behave nominally, is we can deliver to you a history of formerly, potentially habitable environments on Mars,” Grotzinger said at the briefing. “But the expectation that we’re going to find organic carbon, that’s the hope of Mars Science Laboratory. It’s a long shot, but we’re going to try.”
Today’s liftoff was the culmination of about 10 years of efforts by the more than 250 science team members and the diligent work of thousands more researchers, engineers and technicians spread around numerous locations across the United States and NASA’s international partners including Canada, Germany, Russia, Spain and France.
“Scientists chose the site they wanted to go to for the first time in history, because of the precision engineering landing system. We are going to the very best place we could find, exactly where we want to go.”
“I can’t wait to get on the ground,” said Grotzinger.
Complete Coverage of Curiosity – NASA’s Next Mars Rover launched 26 Nov. 2011
Read continuing features about Curiosity by Ken Kremer starting here:
NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover, the most technologically complex and scientifically capable robot built by humans to explore the surface of another celestial body, is poised to liftoff on Nov. 26 and will enable a quantum leap in mankind’s pursuit of Martian microbes and signatures of life beyond Earth.
“The Mars Science Lab and the rover Curiosity is ‘locked and loaded’, ready for final countdown on Saturday’s launch to Mars,” said Colleen Hartman, assistant associate administrator in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, at a pre-launch media briefing at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC).
The $2.5 Billion robotic explorer remains on track for an on time liftoff aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket at 10:02 a.m. on Nov. 26 from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
NASA managers and spacecraft contractors gave the “Go-Ahead” for proceeding towards Saturday’s launch at the Launch Readiness Review on Wednesday, Nov. 23. The next milestone is to move the Atlas V rocket 1800 ft. from its preparation and assembly gantry inside the Vertical Integration Facility at the Cape.
“We plan on rolling the vehicle out of the Vertical Integration Facility on Friday morning [Nov. 25] ,” said NASA Launch Director Omar Baez at the briefing. “We should be on the way to the pad by 8 a.m.”
The launch window on Nov. 26 is open until 11:14 a.m. and the current weather prognosis is favorable with chances rated at 70 percent “GO”.
“The final launch rehearsal – using the real vehicle ! – went perfectly, said NASA Mars manager Rob Manning, in an exclusive interview with Universe Today. Manning is the Curiosity Chief Engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
“I was happy.”
“The folks at KSCs Payload Handling Facility and at JPL’s cruise mission support area (CMSA) – normally a boisterous bunch – worked quietly and professionally thru to T-4 minutes and a simulated fake hold followed by a restart and a recycle (shut down) due to a sail boat floating too close to the range,” Manning told me.
Readers may recall that NASA’s JUNO Jupiter orbiter launch in August was delayed by an hour when an errant boat sailed into the Atlantic Ocean exclusion zone.
“This rover, Curiosity rover, is really a rover on steroids. It’s an order of magnitude more capable than anything we have ever launched to any planet in the solar system,” said Hartman.
“It will go longer, it will discover more than we can possibly imagine.”
Curiosity is locked atop the powerful Alliance Atlas V rocket that will propel the 1 ton behemoth on an eight and one half month interplanetary cruise from the alligator filled swamps of the Florida Space Coast to a layered mountain inside Gale Crater on Mars where liquid water once flowed and Martian microbes may once have thrived.
Curiosity is loaded inside the largest aeroshell ever built and that will shield her from the extreme temperatures and intense buffeting friction she’ll suffer while plummeting into the Martian atmosphere at 13,000 MPH (5,900 m/s) upon arrival at the Red Planet in August 2012.
The Curiosity Mars Science Lab (MSL) rover is the most ambitious mission ever sent to Mars and is equipped with a powerful 75 kilogram (165 pounds) array of 10 state-of-the-art science instruments weighing 15 times as much as its predecessor’s science payloads.
Curiosity measures 3 meters (10 ft) in length and weighs 900 kg (2000 pounds), nearly twice the size and five times as heavy as NASA’s prior set of twin robogirls – Spirit and Opportunity.
The science team selected Gale crater as the landing site because it exhibits exposures of clays and hydrated sulfate minerals that formed in the presence of liquid water billions of years ago, indicating a wet history on ancient Mars that could potentially support the genesis of microbial life forms. Water is an essential prerequisite for life as we know it.
Gale Crater is 154 km (96 mi) in diameter and dominated by a layered mountain rising some 5 km (3 mi) above the crater floor.
The car sized rover is being targeted with a first of its kind precision rocket powered descent system to touchdown inside a landing ellipse some 20 by 25 kilometers (12.4 miles by 15.5 miles) wide and astride the towering mountain at a location in the northern region of Gale.
Curiosity’s goal is to search the crater floor and nearby mountain – half the height of Mt. Everest – for the ingredients of life, including water and the organic molecules that we are all composed of.
The robot will deploy its 7 foot long arm to collect soil and rock samples to assess their composition and determine if any organic materials are present – organics have not previously been detected on Mars.
Curiosity will also vaporize rocks with a laser to determine which elements are present, look for subsurface water in the form of hydrogen, and assess the weather and radiation environments
“After the rocket powered descent, the Sky-Crane maneuver deploys the rover and we land on the mobility system, said Pete Theisinger, MSL project manager from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., at the briefing.
The rover will rover about 20 kilometers in the first year. Curiosity has no life limiting constraints. The longevity depends on the health of the rovers components and instruments.
“We’ve had our normal challenges and hiccups that we have in these kinds of major operations, but things have gone extremely smoothly and we’re fully prepared to go on Saturday morning. We hope that the weather cooperates, said Theisinger
Missions to Mars are exceedingly difficult and have been a death trap for many orbiters and landers.
“Mars really is the Bermuda Triangle of the solar system,” said Hartman. “It’s the ‘death planet,’ and the United States of America is the only nation in the world that has ever landed and driven robotic explorers on the surface of Mars. And now we’re set to do it again.”
Complete Coverage of Curiosity – NASA’s Next Mars Rover launching 26 Nov. 2011
Read continuing features about Curiosity by Ken Kremer starting here:
Says Rob Manning, Curiosity Chief Engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif – in an exclusive interview with Universe Today for all fans of Curiosity and the unprecedented voyage of Science and Discovery about to take flight to Mars on November 26. Manning was also the Chief Engineer for the Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL) of NASA’s phenomenally successful Spirit, Opportunity and Phoenix Mars robotic explorers.
Read Rob Manning’s special greeting about Curiosity to readers of Universe Today below.
Meet Rob and other JPL Mars engineers in the cool Video describing the ‘Challanges of Getting to Mars’ – below
Curiosity is NASA’s next Mars rover and her MMRTG nuclear power source has been installed at the launch pad through special access panels in the Atlas booster payload fairing and protective aeroshell on Nov. 17.
The huge 1-ton robot is now due to blastoff for the Red Planet on Saturday, November 26 at 10: 02 a.m. EST from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. The launch window is open for one hour and 43 minutes.
Liftoff was postponed by one day to replace a battery in the on board flight termination system required in case the rocket were to veer off course.
Here is the very latest Curiosty update status from JPL’s Rob Manning as of Sunday evening – Nov. 20
“All seems well here at JPL in Pasadena,” Manning told me.
“We are having our last rehearsal at 1:30 a.m. on Monday, Nov 21.
“Weird ! As of a few hours ago the last human hands (in gloves) closed out the hatch door on the entry aeroshell and the two large doors in the rocket fairing have been closed. What is weird about it is that finally finally she is powered up and alone.”
“She has never been this alone before. Ironically all eyes are still upon her. Our team is monitoring her vitals 24-7,” Manning explained.
“The Challenges of Getting to Mars’ – Video caption: Meet Curiosity Chief Engineer Rob Manning and more members of the Curiosity Mars Rover Engineering Team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory explain the final assembly of Curiosity at the Kennedy Space Center and how Curiosity will land use the rocket assisted Sky Crane.
“By this time next week, Curiosity will be heading for the home she was meant for.”
“Soon she will feel the cold walls of deep space on her radiators. The x-band transmitter and receiver will have an broken view of the sky (with Earth but a shiny blue dot off to her left). The penetrating rays of the sun will push electrons out of the solar panels and keep her battery charged. (And perhaps a few solar flares will pass by, just to keep things interesting.)”
“Earth can be a rough place for a rover not designed for our planet. Worse are those of us who have poked and prodded, tested beyond spec and pushed in ways that can only be done on Earth.”
“Sometimes we over-do it and push near the breaking point. We are not perfect after all but we need to know that she will do what needs to be done for her very own survival. Well she seems to have survived us.”
“Of course Curiosity will never really be alone. We are right there with her every step of the way. She is us.”
“I will be at JPL during launch,” said Manning.
The JPL team is also working day and night to insure that the do or die Mars Insertion burn fires as planned.
“Once the Deep Space Network acquires the signal, I want to be there to make sure that we did not fail her and that the transition from being the Atlas’s payload to interplanetary cruise is as painless as possible.”
“It will be a bit of a surprise if we did not have a bit of a surprise – but we are ready and so is Curiosity”
Curiosity and the Atlas V booster that will propel her to Mars will roll out to Launch Pad 41 at the Florida Space Coast on Friday morning, Nov. 24, the day after the Thanksgiving holiday.
NASA TV will carry the MSL launch live
After a 10 month interplanetary journey to Mars, Curiosity will plummet through the atmosphere and fire up the rocket powered descent stage and ‘Sky Crane’ to safely touchdown astride a layered mountain at the Gale Crater landing site in August 2012.
Curiosity has 10 science instruments to search for evidence about whether Mars has had environments favorable for microbial life, including the chemical ingredients for life. The unique rover will use a laser to look inside rocks and release the gasses so that its spectrometer can analyze and send the data back to Earth.
Complete Coverage of Curiosity – NASA’s Next Mars Rover launching 26 Nov. 2011
Read continuing features about Curiosity by Ken Kremer starting here:
Nov 19 Update: MSL launch delayed 24 h to Nov. 26 – details later
In just 7 days, Earth’s most advanced robotic roving emissary will liftoff from Florida on a fantastic journey to the Red Planet and the search for extraterrestrial life will take a quantum leap forward. Scientists are thrilled that the noble endeavor of the rover Curiosity is finally at hand after seven years of painstaking work.
NASA’s Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover is vastly more capable than any other roving vehicle ever sent to the surface of another celestial body. Mars is the most Earth-like planet in our Solar System and a prime target to investigate for the genesis of life beyond our home planet.
Curiosity is all buttoned up inside an aeroshell at a seaside launch pad atop an Atlas V rocket and final preparations are underway at the Florida Space Coast leading to a morning liftoff at 10:25 a.m. EST on Nov. 25, the day after the Thanksgiving holiday.
“MSL is ready to go,” said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington, at a media briefing. “It’s a momentous occasion. We’re just thrilled that we’re at this point.”
“Curiosity is ‘Seeking the Signs of Life’, but is not a life detection mission. It is equipped with state-of-the-art science instruments.”
“It’s not your father’s rover. It’s a 2000 pound machine that’s over 6 feet tall – truly a wonder of engineering,” McCuistion stated.
“Curiosity is the best of US imagination and US innovation. And we have partners from France, Canada, Germany, Russia and Spain.”
“Curiosity sits squarely in the middle of our two decade long strategic plan of Mars exploration and will bridge the gap scientifically and technically from the past decade to the next decade.”
“Mars Science Laboratory builds upon the improved understanding about Mars gained from current and recent missions,” said McCuistion. “This mission advances technologies and science that will move us toward missions to return samples from and eventually send humans to Mars.”
The car sized rover is due to arrive at Mars in August 2012 and land inside Gale Crater near the base of a towering and layered Martian mountain, some 5 kilometers (3 miles) high. Gale Crater is 154 km (96 mi) in diameter.
The landing site was chosen because it offers multiple locations with different types of geologic environments that are potentially habitable and may have preserved evidence about the development of microbial life, if it ever formed.
Gale Crater is believed to contain clays and hydrated minerals that formed in liquid water eons ago and over billions of years in time. Water is an essential prerequisite for the genesis of life as we know it.
The one ton robot is a behemoth, measuring 3 meters (10 ft) in length and is nearly twice the size and five times as heavy as NASA’s prior set of twin rovers – Spirit and Opportunity.
Curiosity is equipped with a powerful array of 10 science instruments weighing 15 times as much as its predecessor’s science payloads. The rover can search for the ingredients of life including water and the organic molecules that we are all made of.
Curiosity will embark on a minimum two year expedition across the craters highly varied terrain, collecting and analyzing rock and soil samples in a way that’s never been done before beyond Earth.
Eventually our emissary will approach the foothills and climb the Martian mountain in search of hitherto untouched minerals and habitable environments that could potentially have supported life’s genesis.
With each science mission, NASA seeks to take a leap forward in capability and technology to vastly enhance the science return – not just to repeat past missions. MSL is no exception.
Watch a dramatic action packed animation of the landing and exploration here:
Curiosity was designed at the start to be vastly more capable than any prior surface robotic explorer, said Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity’s Deputy Project Scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif
“This is a Mars scientist’s dream machine.”
Therefore this mission uses new technologies to enable the landing of a heavier science payload and is inherently risky. The one ton weight is far too heavy to employ the air-bag cushioned touchdown system used for Spirit and Opportunity and will use a new landing method instead.
Curiosity will pioneer an unprecedented new precision landing technique as it dives through the Martian atmosphere named the “sky-crane”. In the final stages of touchdown, a rocket-powered descent stage will fire thusters to slow the descent and then lower the rover on a tether like a kind of sky-crane and then safely set Curiosity down onto the ground.
NASA has about three weeks to get Curiosity off the ground from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida before the planetary alignments change and the launch window to Mars closes for another 26 months.
“Preparations are on track for launching at our first opportunity,” said Pete Theisinger, MSL project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. “If weather or other factors prevent launching then, we have more opportunities through Dec. 18.”
Complete Coverage of Curiosity – NASA’s Next Mars Rover launching 25 Nov. 2011
Read continuing features about Curiosity by Ken Kremer starting here:
Only time now stands in the way of Curiosity’s long awaited date with the Red Planet. NASA’s next, and perhaps last Mars rover was transported to the launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and then hoisted on top of the mighty Atlas V rocket that will propel her on a 10 month interplanetary journey to Mars to seek out the potential habitats of Extraterrestrial life.
In less than three weeks on November 25 – the day after Thanksgiving – the Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover will soar to space aboard the Atlas V booster. Touchdown astride a layered mountain at the Gale Crater landing site is set for August 2012.
The $2.5 Billion rover must liftoff by Dec. 18 at the latest, when the launch window to Mars closes for another 26 months. Any delay would cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
Curiosity represents a quantum leap in science capabilities and is by far the most advanced robotic emissary sent to the surface of another celestial body. MSL will operate for a minimum of one Martian year, equivalent to 687 days on earth.
After years of meticulous design work and robotic construction by dedicated scientists and engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California and months of vigilant final assembly and preflight processing at the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility (PHSF) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Curiosity was finally moved the last few miles (km) she’ll ever travel on Earth – in the dead of night – to Space Launch Complex 41 at the Cape.
The robo behemoth was tucked inside her protective aeroshell Mars entry capsule and clamshell-like nose cone, gingerly loaded onto the payload transporter inside the PHSF and arrived – after a careful drive – at Pad 41 at about 4:35 a.m. EDT on Nov. 3. The move was delayed one day by high winds at the Cape.
Teams from rocket builder United Launch Alliance then hoisted MSL by crane on top of the Atlas V rocket already assembled inside the launch gantry known as the Vertical Integration Facility, or VIF, and bolted it to the venerable Centaur upper stage. Technicians also attached umbilicals for mechanical, electrical and gaseous connections.
Curiosity’s purpose is to search for evidence of habitats that could ever have supported microbial life on Mars and determine whether the ingredients of life exist on Mars today in the form of organic molecules – the building blocks of life.
We are all made of organic molecules – which is one of the essential requirements for the genesis of life along with water and an energy source. Mars harbors lots of water and is replete with energy sources, but confirmation of organics is what’s lacking.
The Atlas V will launch in the configuration known as Atlas 541. The 4 indicates a total of four solid rocket motors (SRM) are attached to the base of the first stage. The 5 indicates a five meter diameter payload fairing. The 1 indicates use of a single engine Centaur upper stage.
One of the last but critical jobs remaining at the pad is installation of Curiosity’s MMRTG (Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator) power source about a week before launch around Nov. 17. Technicians will install the MMRTG through small portholes on the side of the payload fairing and aeroshell.
The nuclear power source will significantly enhance the driving range, scientific capability and working lifetime of the six wheeled rover compared to other solar powered landed surface explorers like Pathfinder, Spirit, Opportunity, Phoenix and Phobos-Grunt.
The minivan sized rover measures three meters in length, roughly twice the size of the MER rovers; Spirit and Opportunity. MSL is equipped with 10 science instruments for a minimum two year expedition across Gale crater. The science payload weighs ten times more than any prior Mars rover mission.
The Atlas V rocket and Curiosity will roll out to the launch pad on Wednedsay, November 23, the day before Thanksgiving.
Meanwhile, Russia’s Phobos-Grunt mission to Mars and Phobos is on target to blast off on November 9, Moscow time [Nov 8, US time].
When it comes to space flight pedigrees, few companies have one that can compare to Aerojet’s. The California-based company has a resume on space operations that is as lengthy as it is impressive. Universe Today sat down with Julie Van Kleeck – the firm’s vice-president of space and launch systems business unit.
Van Kleeck spoke extensively about the company’s rich history, its legacy of accomplishments – as well as what it has planned for space missions of the future.
Universe Today:Hi Julie, thanks for taking the time to chat with us today.
Van Kleeck: “My pleasure!”
Universe Today:How long has Aerojet been in business and what exactly is it that your company produces?
Van Kleeck: “We’ve been in the space business – since there was a space program – so since at least the 50s. We’ve dealt with both launch systems as well as space maneuvering systems, those components that enable spacecraft to move while in space.”
Universe Today:What about in terms of human space flight, when did Aerojet get involved with that?
Van Kleeck: “We first started working on the manned side of the house back during the Gemini Program, from there we progressed to Apollo, then shuttle and we hope to be involved with SLS (Space Launch System) as well.”
Universe Today: I understand that your company also has an extensive history when it comes to unmanned missions as well, care to tell us a bit about that?
Van Kleeck: “We have been on every discovery mission that has ever been launched, we have touched every part of space that you can touch.”
Universe Today:Some aerospace companies only produce one product or service, why is Aerojet’s list of offerings so diversified?
Van Kleeck: “We’re quite different than our competitors in that we provide a very wide-range of products to our customers. We’ve provided the liquid engines that went on Titan and now we provide the solids that go on the Atlas V launch vehicle as well as the small chemical and electrical propulsion systems that are utilized on some satellites.”
Universe Today:Does this mean that Aerojet places more importance on one space flight system over others?
Van Kleeck: “We view each of the products that we produce as equally important. Having said that, the fact that Aerojet offers a diversity of products and understands each of them well – sets us apart from our competitors. Firms that only produce one type of product tend to work to sell just that one product, whereas Aerojet’s extensive catalog of services allows us to be more objective when offering those services to our customers.”
Universe Today:When you look back, what is one of the most interesting projects that Aerojet has been involved with?
Van Kleeck: “I think as I look back over the past decade, New Horizons comes to mind, it was the first Atlas to launch with five solids on it. I look at that mission in particular as a major accomplish for not just us – but the country as well.”
Universe Today:What does the future hold for Aerojet?
Van Kleeck: ”We’re working on the Orion crew capsule right now with both liquid propulsion for it as well as solid propulsion for the abort test motor. We’re very much looking forward to seeing Orion fly in the coming years. We are currently putting into place the basic infrastructure to support human space exploration. We are working with both commercial crewed as well as Robert Bigelow to provide propulsion systems that work with their individual system – because no one system fits everyone. We are pleased to be offer systems for a wide variety of space exploration efforts.”
Universe Today:Julie, thanks for taking the time to chat with us today!
Van Kleeck: “No problem at all – it was my pleasure!”
Aerojet’s products will be on full display Nov. 25 as, if everything goes as planned the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover Curiosity is set to launch on that day. Four of the company’s solid rocket motors or SRMs will help power the Curiosity rover on its way to the red planet.
For a taste of what Aerojet’s SRMs provide – please view the NASA video below.
The United States Air Force has entered into a Memorandum of Understanding or MOU with the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and NASA to bring more players into the launch vehicle arena. On Oct. 14, NASA, the NRO and the U.S. Air Force announced plans to certify commercial rockets so that they could compete for future contracts involving Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle, or EELVs. This means that Space Exploration Technologies’ (SpaceX) could compete for upcoming military contracts.
“This strategy will provide us with the ability to compete in the largest launch market in the world,” said Kirstin Brost Grantham, a spokeswoman with SpaceX. “There are those who are opposed to competition for space launches, they would prefer to see the status quo protected. But SpaceX has shown it is no longer possible to ignore the benefits competition can bring.”
In terms of sheer numbers of launch vehicles purchased – the U.S. Air Force is the largest customer in the world – with the U.S. taxpayer picking up the tab. Therefore it was considered to be in the Air Force’s best interest to find means to reduce this cost. The U.S. Air Force’s requirements are currently handled by United Launch Alliance (ULA) in what is essentially a monopoly (or duopoly considering that ULA is a collective organization – comprised of both Boeing and Lockheed Martin).
“SpaceX welcomes the opportunity to compete for Air Force launches. We are reviewing the MOU, and we expect to have a far better sense of our task after the detailed requirements are released in the coming weeks,” said Adam Harris, SpaceX vice president of government affairs.
The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has decided to go ahead with a five-year, 40-booster “block-buy” plan with ULA – despite the fact that the U.S. General Accounting Office’s (GAO) has requested that the DoD rethink that strategy. The GAO stated on Oct. 17, that they are concerned that the DoD is buying too many rockets and at too high of a price.
Under the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Plan, the DoD is set to spend some $15 billion between 2013 and 2017 to acquire some 40 boosters from ULA to send satellites into orbit. For its part, the DoD conceded that it might need to reassess the manner in which it obtained launch vehicles.
The new strategy which is set to allow new participants in to bid on DoD and NRO contracts is an attempt to allow the free-market system drive down the cost of rockets. Recently, the price of these rockets has actually increased. The cause for this price increase has been somewhat attributed to the vacuum created by the end of the space shuttle program.
Firms like SpaceX, which seek to compete for military contracts, will have to meet requirements that are laid out in “new entrant certification guides.”
“Fair and open competition for commercial launch providers is an essential element of protecting taxpayer dollars,” said Elon Musk, SpaceX CEO. “Our American-made Falcon vehicles can deliver assured, responsive access to space that will meet warfighter needs while reducing costs for our military customers.”
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla – United Launch Alliance (ULA) uses a structure that incorporates several launch and support operations into one centralized facility. Known as the Atlas Spaceflight Operations Center (ASOC) is about 9,290 square-meters (100,000 square-foot) in size. The ASOC provides all of the required elements – command, control and communication with the Atlas V. It is from the ASOC that the mission is managed as well as monitoring and evaluating launch operations.
The ASOC is actually two separate buildings that were combined into one. More accurately an existing structure had modern sections added to it. The first section was originally built back in the early 60s as part of the Titan III Program. The ASOC was built for the Titan II Chemical Systems Division Solid Rocket Motors. During this period, it was referred to as the Motor Inert Storage (MIS).
Later, after the awarding of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) contract to Lockheed Martin in Oct. of 1998, they added three additional stories to the MIS. Part of this was the addition of the ASOC’s Launch Control Center (LCC).
The blockbuster film, Transformers 3, Dark of the Moon, had a few scenes filmed at the ASOC. Josh Duhamel, who played Lt. Colonel William Lennox, stood in the center of the LCC while battling the Decepticons. The filming took place back in October of 2010.
The different manners in which the various rockets supported by the Denver, Colorado-based ULA are produced are in large part determined by the history of the rockets themselves.
“Launch vehicles are processed in various ways due to the design of the rocket, the backgrounds of the engineers, designing the rocket and how the rocket evolved all played their part,” said United Launch Alliance’s Mike Woolley. “The facilities available to the designers of the launch vehicle’s systems, the topography and geography of the installation as well as the rules, regulations, restrictions of the area played there part in how each of the individual launch systems are processed.”
The ASOC is one part of the overall launch flow for the Atlas V launch vehicle. The other elements (excluding Space Launch Complex 41) are the Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) and Vertical Integration Facility (VIF).
with a rooms looking down into it, The ASOC a Mission Directors Center, the Spacecraft Operations Center, the Engineering Support Facility, engineering support room which has been dubbed the “Gator Room” as well as an executive conference room.
The ASOC also has a hospitality room as well as a viewing room on the third floor (the roof is also made available for viewing launches). Lockheed Martin chose to cut back the number of support structures and decided to just build on to the existing MIS building. By doing this, Atlas engineers and technicians as well as the Atlas launch control center are close to the High ay where the Atlas V launch vehicle is processed for flight. This not only reduces the amount of time to process the Atlas booster, but it reduces costs as well.
The last Atlas V that was in the High Bay of the ASOC was the one that will be utilized to send the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover, dubbed Curiosity. The Atlas V 541 (AV-028) recently underwent what is known as a Wet Dress Rehearsal (WDR) where the rocket is taken all the way up to launch. This is done to test out the rocket’s key systems before the payload is attached to the launch vehicle. Currently, MSL is set to launch from Space Launch Complex-41 (SLC-41) on Nov. 25 at 10:21 a.m. EDT.