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

Curiosity Rover Bolted to Atlas Rocket – In Search of Martian Microbial Habitats

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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.

Collage showing transport of Curiosity inside nose cone to Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: NASA

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.

Curiosity inside the Nose Cone to Mars. In the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the Atlas V rocket's payload fairing containing the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) spacecraft stands securely atop the transporter that will carry it to Space Launch Complex 41. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

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.

Employees at Space Launch Complex 41 keep watch as the payload fairing containing NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) spacecraft is lifted up the side of the Vertical Integration Facility. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

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.

Curiosity, inside the payload fairing at Pad 41, has been attached to a lifting device in order to be raised and attached to the Atlas V rocket inside the Vertical Integration Facility. The fairing will protect the payload from heat and aerodynamic pressure generated during ascent. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

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].

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

Read Ken’s continuing features about Curiosity starting here:
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

Read Ken’s continuing features about Phobos-Grunt upcoming Nov 9 launch here:
Phobos-Grunt and Yinghuo-1 Encapsulated for Voyage to Mars and Phobos
Phobos and Jupiter Conjunction in 3 D and Amazing Animation – Blastoff to Martian Moon near
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

Encapsulating Curiosity for Martian Flight Test

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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