Top Secret Air Force Mini Shuttle lands after Record-Setting Stay in Space

Image Caption: 2nd X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle Successfully Completes 1st Flight by landing at Vandernberg AFB, Calif., on June 16, 2012. The record setting mission lasted 469 days in earth orbit. Designed to be launched like a satellite and land like an airplane, the second X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, built by Boeing for the United States Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office, is an affordable, reusable space vehicle. Credit: Boeing.
See landing video below

The 2nd of the US Air Force’s top secret X-37B unmanned, reusable mini shuttles safely landed on Saturday, June 16, at 5:48 a.m. Pacific local time at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California to conclude a record setting classified 469 day experimental test flight in Earth orbit.

This was the first flight of OTV-2 and the second flight of the military’s classified X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) test program for the U.S. Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office.

The reusable space plane is designed to be launched like a satellite and land on a runway like an airplane and NASA space shuttle. The X-37B is one of the newest and most advanced reentry spacecraft.

Here is the YouTube landing video released by the US Air Force:

OTV-2 was launched atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V booster from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., on March 5, 2011.

About 18 minutes after launch, the Air Force imposed a news blackout on the classified mission. Details about the cargo and experiments loaded aboard the Air Force orbital space plane are shrouded behind a veil of military security.

It is not known if the X-37B conducted reconnaissance activities during the test flight. It does have the capability to deploy satellites in space

The Air Force says the primary mission goal was to check out the vehicles capabilities and testing the ability to send experiments to space and return them safely.


Image caption: Top secret Air Force X-37B OTV mini space shuttle is encapsulated in 5 meter payload fairing and bolted atop an Atlas 5 rocket at Pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida prior to 5 March 2011 launch. This up close view of the nose cone holding the classified X 37-B shows the umbilical line attachments. Credit: Ken Kremer

The mission duration of well over one year far exceeded the 220-day mission duration of the first OTV craft and tested additional capabilities. Two OTV vehicles have been built by Boeing. The first craft, known as OTV-1, was the United States’ first unmanned vehicle to return from space and land on its own.

Previously, NASA space shuttles piloted by astronauts were the only space vehicles that had demonstrated the capability of returning to Earth and being reused.

“The vehicle was designed for a mission duration of about 270 days,” said Lt. Col. Tom McIntyre, the X-37B program manager in an Air Force statement. “We knew from post-flight assessments from the first mission that OTV-1 could have stayed in orbit longer. So one of the goals of this mission was to see how much farther we could push the on-orbit duration.”

The 11,000 pound state-of -the art reusable OTV space plane was built by Boeing and is about a quarter the size of a NASA space shuttle. It was originally developed by NASA but was transferred to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in 2004.

“With the retirement of the space shuttle fleet, the X-37B OTV program brings a singular capability to space technology development,” McIntyre said. “The return capability allows the Air Force to test new technologies without the same risk commitment faced by other programs”

Among the cutting-edge technologies tested were the auto de-orbit capability, thermal protection tiles, and high-temperature components and seals.

“The X-37B’s advanced thermal protection and solar power systems, and environmental modeling and range safety technologies are just some of the technologies being tested,” said McIntyre. “Each mission helps us continue to advance the state-of-the-art in these areas.”


Image caption: Blastoff of the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) atop an Atlas V rocket on March 5, 2011 from Space Launch Complex-41 (SLC-41) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer

OTV-1 may lift off as early as October 2012 from Cape Canaveral.

“We look forward to the second launch of OTV-1 later this year and the opportunity to demonstrate that the X-37B is an affordable space vehicle that can be repeatedly reused,” said Paul Rusnock, Boeing vice president of Government Space Systems.

Read my X-37B OTV-2 pre-launch report and see my up-close photo album of the Atlas launch pad – here

Ken Kremer

Next Generation Military Communications Satellite Launched for US Air Force

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The second satellite in the new constellation of next generation military communications satellites for the US Air Force was successfully launched to orbit today (May 4) atop a powerful Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at Space Launch Complex- 41 in Florida. It will provide worldwide highly secure communications between the President and the Armed Forces.

Blastoff of the expensive and highly capable $1.7 Billion satellite – dubbed Advanced Extremely High Frequency-2 (AEHF-2) – at the precisely appointed time of 2:42 p.m. EDT (1842 GMT) came after a suspect helium valve and spurious signals forced a scrub of the first launch attempt yesterday, May 3, causing a 24 hour postponement of the launch.

“The AEHF satellites will provide the backbone of protection for US strategic satellite communications,” Capt John Francis, of the Space & Missile Systems Center SATCOM Division, told Universe Today in an interview at the Florida launch site.

“I’m thrilled with today’s launch !” Francis told me after witnessing the liftoff.

The United Launch Alliance Atlas V booster stands 197 feet tall. The liquid fueled first stage is powered by a Russian designed RD-180 engine augmented with three Aerojet solid rocket motors strapped on to the side of the first stage. The solids are jettisoned during ascent.

Atlas V rocket and the highly advanced AEHF-2 military communications satellite soar to space on May 4, 2012 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer

The extremely reliable Atlas V rockets boosted NASA’s Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory and Juno Jupiter Orbiter to their interplanetary destinations in 2011.

AEHF-2 weighs approximately 13,600 pounds and was built by Lockheed Martin.

The spacecraft was successfully separated from the Centaur upper stage about 51 minutes after liftoff as planned and placed into a preliminary transfer orbit. The Centaur was powered by a single Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne RL10A engine.

On board thrusters and the Hall current thruster electric propulsion system will maneuver the spacecraft over about the next three months to its final orbit about 22,300 miles above the equator.

The AEHF satellite family is a vastly improved and upgraded version of the Lockheed Martin-built Milstar constellation currently on-orbit.

“The AEHF constellation has 10 times more throughput compared to Milstar”, Capt. Francis explained.

“They will provide 24 hour near whole world coverage and have a 14 year lifetime.”

“AEHF-2 can maneuver in orbit. It will take about 100 days to reach its parking orbit and can move to theatre hot spots as needed to assist the local troops such as in Afghanistan”, said Francis.

Launch of AEHF-2 military communications satellite atop Atlas V rocket on May 4, 2012 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer

It will operate 24/7 and provide vastly improved global, survivable, highly secure, protected communications for warfighters operating on ground, sea and air platforms. AEHF will also serve America’s international partners including Canada, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.

AEHF-2 is the second satellite in a planned constellation of at least four satellites – and perhaps as many as six satellites – that the military says will eventually replace the aging Milstar system.

“The remaining AEHF satellites will be launched over the next 2 years”, Capt. Francis stated.

A single AEHF satellite provides greater total capacity than the entire five-satellite Milstar constellation. Individual user data rates will be increased five-fold, permitting transmission of tactical military communications, such as real-time video, battlefield maps and targeting data. In addition to its tactical mission, AEHF also provides the critical survivable, protected, and endurable communications links to national leaders including presidential conferencing in all levels of conflict.

The satellite system is used by all levels of the US Government from soldiers in the field in Afghanistan to President Obama in the White House.

Curiosity Halfway to Red Planet Touchdown

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As of today, NASA’s car sized Curiosity rover has reached the halfway point in her 352 million mile (567 million km) journey to Mars – No fooling on April 1, 2012.

It’s T Minus 126 days until Curiosity smashes into the Martian atmosphere to brave the hellish “6 Minutes of Terror” – and, if all goes well, touch down inside Gale Crater at the foothills of a Martian mountain taller than the tallest in the continental United States – namely Mount Rainier.

Curiosity will search for the ingredients of life in the form of organic molecules – the carbon based molecules which are the building blocks of life as we know it. The one-ton behemoth is packed to the gills with 10 state of the art science instruments including a 7 foot long robotic arm, scoop, drill and laser rock zapper.

The Curiosity Mars Science laboratory (MSL) rover was launched from sunny Florida on Nov. 26, 2011 atop a powerful Atlas V rocket for an 8.5 month interplanetary cruise from the Earth to Mars and is on course to land on the Red Planet early in the morning of Aug. 6, 2012 EDT and Universal Time (or Aug. 5 PDT).

Curiosity’s Position in Space on April 1, 2012 - Halfway to Mars
This roadmap shows Curiosity's flight path through the Solar System - From Earth to Mars during the 8.5 month interplanetary cruise. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

On March 26, engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., successfully ignited the spacecrafts thrusters for the second of six planned trajectory correction maneuvers (TCM’s) to adjust the robot’s flight path during the long journey to achieve a pinpoint landing beside the Martian mountain.

“It is satisfying to get the second maneuver under our belts and know we are headed in the right direction,” said JPL’s Erisa Hines, systems lead for the maneuver. “The cruise system continues to perform very well.”

This maneuver was one-seventh as much as the flight’s first course adjustment, on Jan. 11. The cruise stage is equipped with eight thrusters grouped into two sets of four that fire as the entire spacecraft spins at two rotations per minute. The thruster firings change the velocity of the spacecraft in two ways – along the direction of the axis of rotation and also perpendicular to the axis. Altogether there were more than 60 pulsing maneuvers spaced about 10 seconds apart.

“The purpose is to put us on a trajectory to the point in the Mars atmosphere where we need to be for a safe and accurate landing,” said Mau Wong, maneuver analyst at JPL.

Atlas V rocket and Curiosity Mars rover poised at Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral, Florida prior to Nov. 26, 2011 liftoff. Credit: Ken Kremer

Marking another crucial milestone, the flight team has also powered up and checked the status of all 10 MSL science instruments – and all are nominal.

“The types of testing varied by instrument, and the series as whole takes us past the important milestone of confirming that all the instruments survived launch,” said Betina Pavri of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., science payload test engineer for the mission. “These checkouts provide a valuable calibration and characterization opportunity for the instruments, including camera dark images and a measurement of zero pressure in the vacuum of space for the rover weather station’s pressure sensor.”

Ever since it was the first of MSL’s science instruments to be switched on three months ago, the Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) has been collecting valuable measurements about the potentially lethal radiation environment in space and acting as a stunt double for determining the potential health effects on future human travelers to Mars.

RAD has been collecting data on the recent wave of extremely powerful solar flares erupting from the sun.

Curiosity has another 244 million kilometers to go over the next 4 months.

All hopes ride on Curiosity as America’s third and last generation of Mars rovers.

Devastating and nonsensical funding cuts to NASA’s Planetary Science budget have forced NASA to cancel participation in the 2018 ExoMars lander mission that had been joint planned with ESA, the European Space Agency. ESA now plans to forge ahead with Russian participation.

Stay tuned

Simulated view to Mars over the shoulder of Curiosity on 1 April 2012 - from current location halfway to the Red Planet. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Read Ken’s recent Curiosity feature here:
A Penny for your Curiosity on Mars

Flawlessly On Course Curiosity Cruising to Mars – No Burn Needed Now

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Curiosity’s interplanetary injection was spot on ! – following her Nov. 26 blastoff aboard the 2 million pound thrust Atlas V booster from Cape Canaveral in Florida.

For a birds-eye view of where it all started, watch the cool close-up launch video, below taken from within the Atlas pad security fence.

Indeed the launch precision was so good that mission controllers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadsena, Calif., have announced they postponed the first of six planned course correction burns for the agency’s newest Mars rover by at least a month. The firing had been planned for some two weeks after liftoff.

Curiosity is merrily sailing on a 254 day and 352-million-mile (567-million-kilometer) interplanetary flight from the Earth to Mars that will culminate on August 6, 2012 with a dramatic first-of-its-kind precision rocket powered touchdown inside Gale Crater.

“This was among the most accurate interplanetary injections ever,” said Louis D’Amario of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. He is the mission design and navigation manager for the Mars Science Laboratory.

Video Caption: View from inside the Pad 41 Security Fence at Cape Canaveral. Shot by a Canon 7D still camera during the launch of the Atlas V rocket carrying the MSL Curiosity rover to Mars. Thanks to a sound trigger my camera started firing at three frames per second from just after main engine ignition up until the exhaust plume finally envelops the camera and deadens all sound around it. The frames have been slowed down quite a bit for dramatic effect. Enjoy seeing what it is like for us media personnel who set out our remote cameras for launches at Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: Chase Clark/shuttlephotos.com

As of midday Friday, Dec. 2, the spacecraft had already traveled 10.8 million miles (17.3 million kilometers) and is moving at 7,500 mph (12,000 kilometers per hour) relative to Earth and at 73,800 mph (118,700 kilometers per hour) relative to the sun.

An interesting fact is that engineers deliberately planned the spacecraft’s initial trajectory to miss Mars by about 35,000 miles (56,400 kilometers) so that the Centaur upper stage does not hit Mars by accident. Both Centaur and Curiosity are currently following the same trajectory through the vast void of space and the actual trajectory puts them on course to miss Mars by about 38,000 miles (61,200 kilometers).

The Centaur has not been thoroughly cleaned of earthly microbes in the same way as Curiosity – and therefore cannot be permitted to impact the Martian surface and potentially contaminate the very studies Curiosity seeks to carry out in searching for the “Signs of Life”.

For the 8.5 month voyage to Mars, Curiosity and the rocket powered descent stage are tucked inside an aeroshell and are attached to the huge solar powered cruise stage.

Deceleration of Mars Science Laboratory in Martian Atmosphere
Artist's Concept depicts the interaction of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft with the upper atmosphere of Mars during the entry, descent and landing (EDL) of the Curiosity rover onto the Martian surface. EDL begins when the spacecraft reaches the top of Martian atmosphere, about 81 miles (131 kilometers) above the surface of the Gale crater landing area, and ends with the rover safe and sound on the surface of Mars some 7 minutes later. During EDL, the spacecraft decelerates from a velocity of about 13,200 miles per hour (5,900 meters per second) at the top of the atmosphere, to stationary on the surface. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The cruise stage is rotating at 2.05 rounds per minutes and is continuously generating electric power – currently about 800 watts – from the gleaming solar arrays. It also houses eight miniature hydrazine fueled thrusters. The propellant is stored inside titanium tanks.

Atlas V rocket and Curiosity Mars rover poised at Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral, Florida prior to Nov. 26, 2011 liftoff. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The historic voyage of the largest and most sophisticated Martian rover ever built by humans seeks to determine if Mars ever offered conditions favorable for the genesis of microbial life.

Curiosity is packed to the gills with 10 state of the art science instruments that are seeking to detect the signs of life in the form of organic molecules – the carbon based building blocks of life as we know it.

The car sized robot is equipped with a drill and scoop at the end of its 7 ft long robotic arm to gather soil and powdered samples of rock interiors, then sieve and parcel out these samples into two distinct analytical laboratory instruments inside the rover.

Complete Coverage of Curiosity – NASA’s Next Mars Rover launched 26 Nov. 2011
Read continuing features about Curiosity by Ken Kremer starting here:
NASA Planetary Science Trio Honored as ‘Best of What’s New’ in 2011- Curiosity/Dawn/MESSENGER
Curiosity Mars Rover Launch Gallery – Photos and Videos
Curiosity Majestically Blasts off on ‘Mars Trek’ to ascertain ‘Are We Alone?
Mars Trek – Curiosity Poised to Search for Signs of Life
Curiosity Rover ‘Locked and Loaded’ for Quantum Leap in Pursuit of Martian Microbial Life
Science Rich Gale Crater and NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover in Glorious 3-D – Touchdown in a Habitable Zone
Curiosity Powered Up for Martian Voyage on Nov. 26 – Exclusive Message from Chief Engineer Rob Manning
NASA’s Curiosity Set to Search for Signs of Martian Life
Curiosity Rover Bolted to Atlas Rocket – In Search of Martian Microbial Habitats
Closing the Clamshell on a Martian Curiosity
Curiosity Buttoned Up for Martian Voyage in Search of Life’s Ingredients
Assembling Curiosity’s Rocket to Mars
Encapsulating Curiosity for Martian Flight Test
Dramatic New NASA Animation Depicts Next Mars Rover in Action

NASA’s Curiosity Set to Search for Signs of Martian Life

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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.”

This oblique view of Gale Crater shows the landing site and the mound of layered rocks that NASA's Mars Science Laboratory will investigate. The landing site is in the smooth area in front of the mound. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/UA

“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.”

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

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.

NASA's most advanced mobile robotic laboratory, the Mars Science Laboratory carrying the Curiosity rover, is set to launch atop an Atlas V rocket at 10:25 a.m. EST on Nov. 25 on a mission to examine one of the most intriguing areas on Mars at Gale crater. Credit: NASA

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.”

Mars Science Laboratory Briefing. Doug McCuistion, Mars program director, left, Ashwin Vasavada, MSL deputy project scientist, and Pete Theisinger, MSL project manager, share a laugh during a news briefing, Nov. 10, 2011, at NASA Headquarters in Washington. Curiosity, NASA's most advanced mobile robotic laboratory, will examine one of the most intriguing areas on Mars. The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission is set for launch from Florida's Space Coast on Nov. 25 and is scheduled to land on the Red Planet in August 2012 where it will examine the Gale Crater during a nearly two-year prime mission. Credit: NASA/Paul E. Alers

Complete Coverage of Curiosity – NASA’s Next Mars Rover launching 25 Nov. 2011

Read continuing features about Curiosity by Ken Kremer starting here:

Curiosity Rover Bolted to Atlas Rocket – In Search of Martian Microbial Habitats
Closing the Clamshell on a Martian Curiosity
Curiosity Buttoned Up for Martian Voyage in Search of Life’s Ingredients
Assembling Curiosity’s Rocket to Mars
Encapsulating Curiosity for Martian Flight Test
Dramatic New NASA Animation Depicts Next Mars Rover in Action

Closing the Clamshell on a Martian Curiosity

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Curiosity’s clamshell has been closed.

And it won’t open up again until a few minutes after she blasts off for the Red Planet in just a little more than 3 weeks from now on Nov. 25, 2011 – the day after Thanksgiving celebrations in America.

The two halves of the payload fairing serve to protect NASA’s next Mars rover during the thunderous ascent through Earth’s atmosphere atop the powerful Atlas V booster rocket that will propel her on a fantastic voyage of hundreds of millions of miles through interplanetary space.

Spacecraft technicians working inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida have now sealed Curiosity and her aeroshell inside the payload fairing shroud. The fairing insulates the car sized robot from the intense impact of aerodynamic pressure and heating during ascent. At just the right moment it will peal open and be jettisoned like excess baggage after the rocket punches through the discernable atmosphere.

Clamshell-like payload fairing about to be closed around Curiosity at KSC. Credit: NASA/Jim Grossmann

The next trip Curiosity takes will be a few miles to the Launch Pad at Space Launch Complex 41 at adjacent Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. She will be gingerly loaded onto a truck for a sojourn in the dead of night.

Curiosity in front of one payload fairing shell. Credit: NASA/Jim Grossmann

“Curiosity will be placed onto the payload transporter on Tuesday and goes to Complex 41 on Wednesday, Nov. 2,” KSC spokesman George Diller told Universe Today. “The logo was applied to the fairing this weekend.”

At Pad 41, the payload will then be hoisted atop the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket and be bolted to the Centaur upper stage.

Installation of Curiosity’s MMRTG (Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator) power source is one of the very last jobs and occurs at the pad just in the very final days before liftoff for Mars.

The MMRTG will be installed through a small porthole in the payload fairing and the aeroshell (see photo below).

MMRTG power source will be installed on Curiosity through the porthole at right just days before Nov. 25 launch. Credit: NASA/Jim Grossmann

The plutonium dioxide based power source has more than 40 years of heritage in interplanetary exploration and will significantly enhance the driving range, scientific capability and working lifetime of the six wheeled rover compared to the solar powered rovers Spirit and Opportunity.

After a 10 month voyage, Curiosity is due to land at Gale Crater in August 2012 using the revolutionary sky crane powered descent vehicle for the first time on Mars.

Camera captures one last look at Curiosity before an Atlas V rocket payload fairing is secured around it. Credit: NASA/Jim Grossmann

Curiosity has 10 science instruments to search for evidence about whether Mars has had environments favorable for microbial life, including 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.

Technicians monitor Curiosity about to be engulfed by the two halves of the payload fairing. Credit: NASA/Jim Grossmann
Payload fairing sealed around Curiosity at the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at KSC. Credit: NASA/Jim Grossmann
Atlas V rocket at Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral, Florida
An Atlas V rocket similar to this one utilized in August 2011 for NASA’s Juno Jupiter Orbiter will blast Curiosity to Mars on Nov. 25, 2011 from Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer

Phobos-Grunt, Earth’s other mission to Mars courtesy of Russia is due to blast off first from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on November 9, 2011.

Read Ken’s continuing features about Curiosity starting here:
Curiosity Buttoned Up for Martian Voyage in Search of Life’s Ingredients
Assembling Curiosity’s Rocket to Mars
Encapsulating Curiosity for Martian Flight Test
Dramatic New NASA Animation Depicts Next Mars Rover in Action

Read Ken’s continuing features about Russia’s Phobos-Grunt Mars mission here:
Russia Fuels Phobos-Grunt and sets Mars Launch for November 9
Phobos-Grunt and Yinghou-1 Arrive at Baikonur Launch Site to tight Mars Deadline
Phobos-Grunt: The Mission Poster
Daring Russian Sample Return mission to Martian Moon Phobos aims for November Liftoff