Encapsulating Curiosity for Martian Flight Test


With just over 6 weeks to go until the liftoff of Curiosity – NASA’s next Mars rover – prelaunch processing at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida is rapidly entering the home stretch. Technicians placed the folded rover inside the complete aeroshell to match the Martian entry configuration components together and conduct preflight testing of the integrated assembly at the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at KSC. The aeroshell is comprised of the heat shield and back shell and encapsulates Curiosity during the long voyage to Mars.

The job of the aeroshell is to protect the Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) from the intense heat of several thousand degrees F(C) generated by friction as the delicate assemblage smashes into the Martian atmosphere during the terrifying entry and descent to the surface.

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

The rover itself has been mated to the back shell powered descent vehicle, known as the PDV or sky crane. The rocket powered descent stage (PDV) is designed to maneuver through the Martian atmosphere, slow the descent and safely set Curiosity down onto the surface at a precise location inside the chosen landing site of Gale Crater.

Technicians still have several more weeks of hardware testing and planetary protection checks ahead before NASA’s minivan sized Martian robot is encapsulated inside the aeroshell for the final time.

Rotating Curiosity's Back Shell Powered Descent Vehicle
At the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the "back shell powered descent vehicle" configuration of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory is being rotated for final closeout actions. At this time Curiosity and its rocket-powered descent stage have already been integrated, and are now encapsulated inside the spacecraft's back shell. The configuration of rover integrated with the descent stage is the "powered descent vehicle." The back shell, a protective cover, carries the parachute and several other components used during descent. The yellow disks visible at the top of the configuration are the descent stage's radar antennas that will be used to calculate the rover's descent speed and altitude. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Another major task still to be completed is mating the aeroshell to the cruise stage and then fueling of the cruise stage, which guides MSL from the Earth to Mars, according to Guy Webster, press spokesman for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory which manages the MSL project for NASA.

The launch of the $2.5 Billion Curiosity rover atop an Atlas V rocket is slated for Nov. 25, the day after Thanksgiving, and the launch window extends until Dec. 18. Arrival at Gale crater is set for August 2012.

Curiosity is by far the most scientifically advanced surface robotic rover ever sent beyond Earth and will search for environmental conditions that could have been favorable to support Martian microbial life forms if they ever existed in the past or present.

Final Closeout Actions for Curiosity's Heat Shield and Back Shell
At the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the "back shell powered descent vehicle" configuration, containing NASA's Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity, is being rotated for final closeout actions. The flat, circular object in the foreground of the image is the spacecraft's heat shield. The heat shield and the back shell will together form an encapsulating aeroshell that will protect the rover from the intense heat and friction that will be generated as the flight system descends through the Martian atmosphere.Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Watch for my upcoming report from inside the cleanroom with Curiosity.
Read Ken’s continuing features about Curiosity and Opportunity starting here:
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
Dramatic New NASA Animation Depicts Next Mars Rover in Action
Opportunity Rover Heads for Spirit Point to Honor Dead Martian Sister; Science Team Tributes

Mars Science Lab Rover Will Land in Gale Crater


It’s official: the Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity, will be landing Gale Crater on Mars. Scientists announced the final decision at a special event at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum Friday morning. Comparing the terrain to an enticing bowl of layered Neopolitan ice cream, the science team announced the rover will land at the foot of a layered mountain inside Gale Crater.

“The science at Gale is going to be amazing and it will be a beautiful place to visit,” said Dawn Sumner, a geologist with the MSL team.

MSL is scheduled to launch in November 2011 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida and land in August 2012. Curiosity is twice as long and more than five times as heavy as previous the Mars Exploration rovers Spirit and Opportunity. The rover will study whether the landing region at Gale crater had favorable environmental conditions for supporting microbial life and for preserving clues about whether life ever existed.

News had leaked out a few weeks ago that Gale was the favored site, but scientists today explained what made Gale stand out among the four final candidates, which each offered their own delicious “flavor,” making the decision a difficult one.

NASA has selected Gale crater as the landing site for the Mars Science Laboratory mission. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

“When it comes down to four landing sites, it comes down to what feels right,” said John Grotzinger, Mars Science Laboratory project scientist. “We as a science team, as a community, we got together and in the end we picked the one that felt best. Why? Here, we’ve got mountain of rocks, taller than Mount Whitney. It looks like Hawaii; it’s not a tall spire, but a broad mound. So we can actually climb up this mountain with the rover. That alone justifies sending the spacecraft there. It turns out, though, the most attractive science sites are at the base of the mountain. We can address the principle goals of the things the Mars community would like answers to.”

NASA’s strategy for Mars has been to “follow the water,” since we know that wherever there is water on Earth, there is life. Scientists are hedging their bets on Mars that wherever liquid water once flowed would be the best places to look for evidence of past habitability.

Gale has that going for it.

Gale Crater stratigraphy. Iimage courtesy Matt Golombek.

The portion of the crater where Curiosity will land has an alluvial fan likely formed by water-carried sediments. The layers at the base of the mountain contain clays and sulfates, both known to form in water.

“It’s a huge crater sitting in a very low-elevation position on Mars, and we all know that water runs downhill,” Grotzinger said. “In terms of the total vertical profile exposed and the low elevation, Gale offers attractions similar to Mars’ famous Valles Marineris, the largest canyon in the solar system.”

The scientists emphasized that MSL is not a life detection mission, as it can’t look for fossils. But it can detect organic carbon, which can tell the early environmental story of Mars, found in the sediments within rocks.

Gale Crater crater spans 154 kilometers (96 miles) in diameter and is about the combined area of Connecticut and Rhode Island. The mound in the center rises 5 km (3 miles) height and the Layering in the mound suggests it is the surviving remnant of an extensive sequence of deposits.

The crater is named for Australian astronomer Walter F. Gale.

About the size of a Mini-Cooper, Curiosity has 17 cameras and a full color video camera. The mission should offer incredible vistas that will likely wow the public, beginning with the landing, as Curiosity will take a full color, high definition movie as it descends on the “Sky Crane” landing system.

Anyone else ready for this mission to get going?

Dramatic New NASA Animation Depicts Next Mars Rover in Action


NASA’s next Mars rover, the Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory, will soon embark on a quantum leap in humankind’s scientific exploration of the Martian surface -the most Earthlike planet in our Solar System.

To get a birds eye understanding of Curiosity’s magnificent capabilities, check out the dramatic new high resolution animation below which depicts NASA’s next Mars rover traversing tantalizing terrain for clues to whether Martian microbial life may have existed, evolved and been sustained in past or present times.

The new action packed animation is 11 minutes in length. It depicts sequences starting with Earth departure, smashing through the Martian atmosphere, the nail biting terror of the never before used rocket-backpack sky crane landing system and then progressing through the assorted science instrument capabilities that Curiosity will bring to bear during its minimum two year expedition across hitherto unseen and unexplored Martian landscapes, mountains and craters.

Curiosity is equipped with 10 science instruments. The three meter long robot is five times the weight of any previous Mars rover.

Those who closely follow the adventures of NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity rovers, like myself, will quickly recognize several of the panoramic scenes which have been included to give a realistic feeling of vistas to expect from the car sized Curiosity rover.

Here is a shorter 4 minute animation with expert narration

Along the way you’ll experience Curiosity zapping rocks with a laser, deftly maneuvering her robotic arm and camera mast and retrieving and analyzing Martian soil samples.

“It is a treat for the 2,000 or more people who have worked on the Mars Science Laboratory during the past eight years to watch these action scenes of the hardware the project has developed and assembled,” said Mars Science Laboratory Project Manager Pete Theisinger at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif, in a NASA statement. “The animation also provides an exciting view of this mission for any fan of adventure and exploration.”

Curiosity - The Next Mars Rover analyzes Martian rocks
Curiosity rover examines a rock on Mars with a set of tools at the end of the rover's arm, which extends about 2 meters (7 feet). Two instruments on the arm can study rocks up close. Also, a drill can collect sample material from inside of rocks and a scoop can pick up samples of soil. The arm can sieve the samples and deliver fine powder to instruments inside the rover for thorough analysis. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Curiosity was flown this week from her birthplace at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California to her future launch site in Florida aboard a C-17 military cargo transport aircraft.

She arrived at the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) at the Kennedy Space Center on June 22. The SLF is the same landing strip where I watched the STS-135 crew arrive for NASA’s final shuttle mission just days earlier days for their final launch countdown training.

NASA has scheduled Curiosity to blast off for the red planet on Nov. 25, 2011 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station aboard an Atlas V rocket. Curiosity will touchdown in August 2012 at a landing site that will be announced soon by Ed Weiler, NASA Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C.

Curiosity rover traverses new Martian terrain in search of habitats for microbial life. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Read my prior features about Curiosity
Packing a Mars Rover for the Trip to Florida; Time Lapse Video
Test Roving NASA’s Curiosity on Earth
Curiosity Mars Rover Almost Complete
Curiosity Rover Testing in Harsh Mars-like Environment

Packing a Mars Rover for the Trip to Florida

Check out this way cool time-lapse movie of NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover as its being packed up for her trip to Florida.

The video covers a 4 day period from June 13 to 17 and is condensed to just 1 minute. Watch the JPL engineers and technicians prepare Curiosity and the descent stage for shipping to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and place it inside a large protective shipping container. Continue reading “Packing a Mars Rover for the Trip to Florida”

Test Roving NASA’s Curiosity on Earth


Just over a year from now, NASA’s Curiosity rover should be driving across fascinating new landscapes on the surface of Mars if all goes well. Curiosity is NASA next Mars rover – the Mars Science Laboratory – and is targeted to launch during a three week window that extends from Nov. 25 to Dec. 18, 2011 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla..

At NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, Calif., engineering specialists have been putting Curiosity through the final phase of mobility tests to check out the driving capability, robotic arm movements and sample collection maneuvers that the robot will carry out while traversing the landing site after plummeting through the Martian atmosphere in August 2012.

Take a good look at this album of newly released images from JPL showing Curiosity from the front and sides, maneuvering all six wheels, climbing obstacles and flexing the robotic arm and turret for science sample collection activities as it will do while exploring the red planet’s surface.

Mars Rover Curiosity's Arm Held High

Curiosity is following in the footsteps of the legendary Spirit and Opportunity rovers which landed on opposite side of Mars in 2004.

“The rover and descent stage will be delivered to the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) later in June,” Guy Webster, public affairs officer at JPL, told me. An Air Force C-17 transport plane has already delivered the heat shield, back shell and cruise stage on May 12, 2011.

“The testing remaining in California is with engineering models and many operational readiness tests,” Webster elaborated. “Lots of testing remains to be done on the flight system at KSC, including checkouts after shipping, a system test, a fit check with the RTG, tests during final stacking.”

Mars Rover Curiosity, Turning in Place during mobility testin. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The three meter long rover will explore new terrain that will hopefully provide clues as to whether Mars harbored environmental conditions that may have been favorable to the formation of microbial life beyond Earth and preserved evidence of whether left ever existed in the past and continued through dramatic alterations in Mars history.

NASA is evaluating a list of four potential landing sites that will offer the highest science return and the best chance of finding a potentially habitable zone in a previously unexplored site on the red planet.

Mars Rover Curiosity Raising Turret

Mars Rover Curiosity, Left Side View
Mars Rover Curiosity with Wheel on Ramp
Mars Rover Curiosity, Right Side View

Mars Science Lab Backshell Damaged (Updated)


UPDATE: According to JPL’s Scott Maxwell on Twitter, the aeroshell was not damaged during the improper lifting, which is good news, as there should be no impact to the launch schedule.

The backshell for the Mars Science Laboratory was damaged last week at Kennedy Space Center when it was lifted improperly, according to Aviation Week. Engineers are now examining the backshell to determine the nature of the damage and how serious it is. There is no word yet on whether this could impact the launch of the Curiosity rover, which is currently set for November 25 of this year. The launch window extends to December 18, but after that the mission would have to wait about 26 months for the next favorable launch window.

An agency spokesman was quoted as saying the damage to the backshell did not appear to be serious. An Air Force C-17 carrying the backshell, cruise stage and heat shield arrived at Kennedy Space Center on May 12, while the rover and its unique the descent stage scheduled to arrive in June. The accident apparently involved the backshell being lifted with a crane in the wrong attitude, placing out-of-specification strain on clamps holding it together.

We’ll keep you posted.

Source: Aviation Week, h/t Stu Atkinson

Solar Powered Jupiter bound JUNO lands at Kennedy Space Center for blastoff


Juno, NASA’s next big mission bound for the outer planets, has arrived at the Kennedy Space Center to kick off the final leg of launch preparations in anticipation of blastoff for Jupiter this summer.

The huge solar-powered Juno spacecraft will skim to within 4800 kilometers (3000 miles) of the cloud tops of Jupiter to study the origin and evolution of our solar system’s largest planet. Understanding the mechanism of how Jupiter formed will lead to a better understanding of the origin of planetary systems around other stars throughout our galaxy.

Juno will be spinning like a windmill as it fly’s in a highly elliptical polar orbit and investigates the gas giant’s origins, structure, atmosphere and magnetosphere with a suite of nine science instruments.

Technicians at Astrotech's payload processing facility in Titusville, Fla. secure NASA's Juno spacecraft to the rotation stand for testing. The solar-powered spacecraft will orbit Jupiter's poles 33 times to find out more about the gas giant's origins. Credit: NASA/Jack Pfaller

During the five year cruise to Jupiter, the 3,600 kilogram probe will fly by Earth once in 2013 to pick up speed and accelerate Juno past the asteroid belt on its long journey to the Jovian system where it arrives in July 2016.

Juno will orbit Jupiter 33 times and search for the existence of a solid planetary core, map Jupiter’s intense magnetic field, measure the amount of water and ammonia in the deep atmosphere, and observe the planet’s auroras.

The mission will provide the first detailed glimpse of Jupiter’s poles and is set to last approximately one year. The elliptical orbit will allow Juno to avoid most of Jupiter’s harsh radiation regions that can severely damage the spacecraft systems.

Juno was designed and built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, and air shipped in a protective shipping container inside the belly of a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster cargo jet to the Astrotech payload processing facility in Titusville, Fla.

Juno undergoes acoustics testing at Lockheed Martin in Denver where the spacecraft was built. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lockheed Martin

This week the spacecraft begins about four months of final functional testing and integration inside the climate controlled clean room and undergoes a thorough verification that all its systems are healthy. Other processing work before launch includes attachment of the long magnetometer boom and solar arrays which arrived earlier.

Juno is the first solar powered probe to be launched to the outer planets and operate at such a great distance from the sun. Since Jupiter receives 25 times less sunlight than Earth, Juno will carry three giant solar panels, each spanning more than 20 meters (66 feet) in length. They will remain continuously in sunlight from the time they are unfurled after launch through the end of the mission.

“The Juno spacecraft and the team have come a long way since this project was first conceived in 2003,” said Scott Bolton, Juno’s principal investigator, based at Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, in a statement. “We’re only a few months away from a mission of discovery that could very well rewrite the books on not only how Jupiter was born, but how our solar system came into being.”

Juno is slated to launch aboard the most powerful version of the Atlas V rocket – augmented by 5 solid rocket boosters – from Cape Canaveral, Fla. on August 5. The launch window extends through August 26. Juno is the second mission in NASA’s New Frontiers program.

NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover will follow Juno to the Atlas launch pad, and is scheduled to liftoff in late November 2011. Read my stories about Curiosity here and here.

Because of cuts to NASA’s budget by politicians in Washington, the long hoped for mission to investigate the Jovian moon Europa may be axed, along with other high priority science missions. Europa may harbor subsurface oceans of liquid water and is a prime target in NASA’s search for life beyond Earth.

Technicians inside the clean room at Astrotech in Titusville, Fla. guide NASA's Juno spacecraft, as it is lowered by overhead crane, onto the rotation stand for testing. Credit: NASA/Jack Pfaller
Technicians at Astrotech unfurl solar array No. 1 with a magnetometer boom that will help power NASA's Juno spacecraft on a mission to Jupiter. Credit: NASA
Juno's interplanetary trajectory to Jupiter. Juno will launch in August 2011 and fly by Earth once in October 2013 during its 5 year cruise to Jupiter. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA/JPL

Curiosity Mars Rover Almost Complete


NASA’s massive ‘Curiosity’ rover is almost ready to begin the first leg of its long trek to the surface of the Red Planet. Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California are nearly finished with assembling and testing all the components of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission (see photos above and below).

The MSL team plans to ship Curiosity as well as the cruise stage, descent stage and back shell to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in May and June. After arriving at KSC, all the pieces will be integrated together and tested during final assembly in a clean room. The rover will then be installed inside a 5 meter diameter nose cone, shipped the short distance to Cape Canaveral and then bolted atop an Atlas V rocket (photo below).

Top of Mars Rover Curiosity's Remote Sensing Mast.
The remote sensing mast on NASA Mars rover Curiosity holds two science instruments for studying the rover's surroundings and two stereo navigation cameras for use in driving the rover and planning rover activities. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The launch window for Curiosity extends from Nov. 25 to Dec. 18, 2011. The first stage of the powerful Atlas V rocket will be augmented with four solid rocket boosters. The Atlas V has previously launched two planetary missions; the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and the New Horizons mission to Pluto.

Take a long gander at the 3 meter long rover because its appearance is now very much how it will look while it’s roving along intriguing martian landscapes for at least two earth years after landing in August 2012.

NASA Mars Rover Curiosity at JPL, View from Front Left Corner.
Support equipment is holding the Mars rover Curiosity slightly off the floor. When the wheels are on the ground, the top of the rover's mast is about 2.2 meters (7 feet) above ground level. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The mini-Cooper sized Curiosity rover is equipped with 10 science instruments to investigate Martian soil and rock samples in far greater detail than ever before. Curiosity’s science payload weighs ten times more than any prior Mars rover mission.

The goal is to search for clues to environmental conditions favorable for microbial life and for preserving evidence about whether Martian life ever existed in the past or today. NASA is scrutinizing a list of four potential landing sites for the best chance of finding a habitable zone.

Arm and Mast of Curiosity Mars Rover.
Curiosity's arm and remote sensing mast carry science instruments and other tools for the mission. This image, taken April 4, 2011, inside the Spacecraft Assembly Facility at JPL shows the arm on the left and the mast just right of center. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Atlas V rocket at pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
An Atlas V rocket similar to this one with a 5 meter diameter nose cone – but with 4 solid rocket boosters added - will launch Curiosity to Mars in late 2011. Credit: Ken Kremer
Atlas V launch vehicle will blast Curiosity to Mars

Curiosity Rover Testing in Harsh Mars-like Environment


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.

Curiosity enters the 7.6-meter-diameter space-simulation chamber on March 8, 2011 at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. The rover is fully assembled with all primary flight hardware and instruments. The test chamber's door is still open in this photo. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
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.

The launch window for MSL extends from Nov. 25 to Dec. 18, 2011 atop an Atlas V rocket from pad 41 at Cape Canaveral, Florida.

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.

Artist's concept illustrates Mars rover Curiosity traversing across martian surface. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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.

Engineers work on the six wheeled Curiosity rover in a clean room at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Drop Test for Next Mars Rover’s Sky-Crane Landing System

One of the biggest unknowns for the Mars Science Lab — a.k.a Curiosity — is the landing system, called the Sky Crane, which has never been used before for a spacecraft landing on another planet. It is similar to a sky crane heavy-lift helicopter, and it works like this: after a parachute slows the rover’s descent toward Mars, a rocket-powered backpack will lower the rover on a tether during the final moments before landing. This method allows landing a very large, heavy rover on Mars (instead of the airbag landing systems of previous Mars rovers).

The MSL team conducted a drop test of the Sky Crane, and you can see how it worked in the video, above.
Continue reading “Drop Test for Next Mars Rover’s Sky-Crane Landing System”