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

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”

Watch a Mars Rover Under Construction – LIVE!

If you are tired of the drama of your favorite reality TV show, it might be time to switch things up a bit. The most recent reality show, available ad free on the internet, features a spunky robot and a huge cast of characters. The spunky robot is Curiosity, the name of the Mars Science Laboratory rover. The characters are all wearing white clean room “bunny suits,” so it will be difficult to tell them apart. Surely, if you spend enough time watching you’ll be able to discern who’s who.

In all seriousness, you can watch the construction of Curiosity live via Ustream. The NASA/JPL team that is constructing the rover will be at work between 8 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. PDT Monday through Friday. Otherwise, things will be a little quiet. The camera looks out onto a pretty active part of the clean room, but they may move the rover outside of the view of the camera. Some of the busy periods will be archived at the bottom of the Ustream feed, so if you end up watching during a quiet period, take a look at those while you’re waiting for the next work period to start up.

For more on the rover and its mission, visit the mission page or see our story on Universe Today from September, “5 Things about the Next Mars Rover“.

Source: JPL

Astronomy Without A Telescope – Solar Or RTG?


It used to be the case that if you wanted to send a spacecraft mission out past the asteroid belt, you’d need a chunk of plutonium-238 to generate electric power – like for Pioneers 10 and 11, Voyagers 1 and 2, Galileo, Cassini, even Ulysses which just did a big loop out and back to get a new angle on the Sun – and now New Horizons on its way to Pluto.

But in 2011, the Juno mission to Jupiter is scheduled for launch – the first outer planet exploration mission to be powered by solar panels. And also scheduled for 2011, in another break with tradition – Curiosity, the Mars Science Laboratory will be the first Mars rover to be powered by a plutonium-238 radioisotope thermoelectric generator – or RTG.

I mean OK, the Viking landers had RTGs, but they weren’t rovers. And the rovers (including Sojourner) had radioisotope heaters, but they weren’t RTGs.

So, solar or RTG – what’s best? Some commentators have suggested that NASA’s decision to power Juno with solar is a pragmatic one – seeking to conserve a dwindling supply of RTGs – which have a bit of a PR problem due to the plutonium.

However, if it works, why not push the limits of solar? Although some of our longest functioning probes (like the 33 year old Voyagers) are RTG powered, their long-term survival is largely a result of them operating far away from the harsh radiation of the inner solar system – where things are more likely to break down before they run out of power. That said, since Juno will lead a perilous life flying close to Jupiter’s own substantial radiation, longevity may not be a key feature of its mission.

Perhaps RTG power has more utility. It should enable Curiosity to go on roving throughout the Martian winter – and perhaps manage a range of analytical, processing and data transmission tasks at night, unlike the previous rovers.

With respect to power output, Juno’s solar panels would allegedly produce a whopping 18 kilowatts in Earth orbit, but will only manage 400 watts in Jupiter orbit. If correct, this is still on par with the output of a standard RTG unit – although a large spacecraft like Cassini can stack several RTG units together to generate up to 1 kilowatt.

So, some pros and cons there. Nonetheless, there is a point – which we might position beyond Jupiter’s orbit now – where solar power just isn’t going to cut it and RTGs still look like the only option.

Left image: a plutonium-238 ceramic pellet glowing red hot, like most concentrated ceramicised radioisotopes will do. Credit: Los Alamos National Laboratory. Right image: the Apollo 14 ALSEP RTG, almost identical to Apollo 13's RTG which re-entered Earth's atmosphere with the demise of the Aquarius lunar module. Credit: NASA

RTGs take advantage of the heat generated by a chunk of radioactive material (generally plutonium 238 in a ceramic form), surrounding it with thermocouples which use the thermal gradient between the heat source and the cooler outer surface of the RTG unit to generate current.

In response to any OMG it’s radioactive concerns, remember that RTGs travelled with the Apollo 12-17 crews to power their lunar surface experiment packages – including the one on Apollo 13 – which was returned unused to Earth with the lunar module Aquarius – the crew’s life boat until just before re-entry. Allegedly, NASA tested the waters where the remains of Aquarius ended up and found no trace of plutonium contamination – much as expected. It’s unlikely that its heat tested container was damaged on re-entry and its integrity was guaranteed for ten plutonium-238 half-lives, that is 900 years.

In any case, the most dangerous thing you can do with plutonium is to concentrate it. In the unlikely event that an RTG disintegrates on Earth re-entry and its plutonium is somehow dispersed across the planet – well, good. The bigger worry would be that it somehow stays together as a pellet and plonks into your beer without you noticing. Cheers.

Curiosity Rover Takes First Test Drive

Even though there were no wheelies or skid marks, it was an exciting day for the teams working on the next Mars rover. The Mars Curiosity rover (or the Mars Science Laboratory) took its first short drive in the JPL clean room where it is being built. This video was captured from live broadcast on July 23, 2010. Cheers and commentary provided by mission team members who watched the event from a viewing gallery above the clean room floor. In this clip the rover drives backward for the first time.

Launch Dates Narrowed for Mars Science Lab


Mission planners have narrowed the field for possible launch dates for NASA’s next generation rover to Mars, the Mars Science Laboratory, nicknamed Curiosity. Taking into account orbital mechanics, planetary alignment, and communications issues, MSL’s launch will occur between Nov. 25 and Dec. 18, 2011, with landing will taking place between Aug. 6 and Aug. 20, 2012. The actual landing site is still being decided, between four different locations on Mars (read about the four sites here.)

“The key factor was a choice between different strategies for sending communications during the critical moments before and during touchdown,” said Michael Watkins, mission manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “The shorter trajectory is optimal for keeping both orbiters in view of Curiosity all the way to touchdown on the surface of Mars. The longer trajectory allows direct communication to Earth all the way to touchdown.”

Landing on Mars is always very difficult, and NASA has put a high priority on communication during Mars landings, especially after a landing failure in 1999. Therefore, the flight schedule allows for favorable positions for the Mars Odyssey and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, currently orbiting Mars, which can both obtain information during descent and landing of MSL.

The simplicity of direct-to-Earth communication from Curiosity during landing has appeal to mission planners, but the direct-to-Earth option allows a communication rate equivalent to only about 1 bit per second, while the relay option allows about 8,000 bits or more per second.

“It is important to capture high-quality telemetry to allow us to learn what happens during the entry, descent and landing, which is arguably the most challenging part of the mission,” said Fuk Li, manager of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program at JPL. “The trajectory we have selected maximizes the amount of information we will learn to mitigate any problems.”

Curiosity will use several innovations during entry, descent and landing in order to hit a relatively small target area on the surface and set down a rover too heavy for the cushioning air bags used in earlier Mars rover landings. MSL will use employ of the largest parachutes ever used in a space mission to land a car-sized rover on the Red Planet. Most interesting is the final phase of landing, where a “sky-crane,” a rocket-powered descent stage will lower Curiosity on a tether for a wheels-down landing directly onto the surface.

Even though Curiosity won’t be communicating directly with Earth at touchdown, data about the landing will reach Earth promptly. Odyssey will be in view of both Earth and Curiosity, in position to immediately forward to Earth the data stream it is receiving during the touchdown. Odyssey performed this type of “bent-pipe” relay during the May 25, 2008, arrival of NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander.

Curiosity will rove extensively on Mars, carrying an analytical laboratory and other instruments to examine a carefully selected landing area. It will investigate whether conditions there have favored development of microbial life and its preservation in the rock record. Plans call for the mission to operate on Mars for a full Martian year, which is equivalent to two Earth years.

More information about NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory.

Source: JPL