JPL’s ‘Muscle Car’ – MSL – Takes Center Stage

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – NASA is experiencing what could be dubbed a “summer of planetary exploration.” With the Juno mission to Jupiter on its way as of Aug. 5, NASA is prepping not one but two more missions – this time to terrestrial bodies – specifically the Moon and Mars.

On Sept. 8 NASA is planning to launch GRAIL (Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory). This mirror image spacecraft consists of two elements that will fly in tandem with one another and scan the Moon from its core to its crust. This mission will serve to expand our understanding of the mechanics of how terrestrial bodies are formed. GRAIL will provide the most accurate gravitational map of the Moon to date.

The aeroshell that will cover both the MSL rover and its jetpack landing system. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

When it comes to upcoming projects that have “celebrity” status – few can compete with the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) or Curiosity. The six-wheeled rover was part of a media event Friday Aug. 12 that included the “Sky-Crane” jetpack that is hoped will safely deliver the car-sized rover the Martian surface. Also on display was the back half of the rover’s aeroshell which will keep the robot safe as in enters the red planet’s atmosphere.

Numerous engineers were available for interview, one expert on hand to explain the intricacies of how Curiosity works was the Rover Integration Lead on the project, Peter Illsley.

One fascinating aspect of MSL is how the rover will land. As it pops free of the aeroshell, a jet pack will conduct a powered descent to Mars’ surface. From there the rover will be lowered to the ground via wires, making Curiosity look like an alien spider descending from its web. Once the rover makes contact with the ground, the wires will be severed and the “Sky-Crane” will fly off to conduct a controlled crash. Ben Thoma, the mechanical lead on this aspect of the project, described how he felt about what it is like to work on MSL.

MSL is slated to launch this November atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V 541 rocket. If everything goes according to plan the rover will begin exploring Mars’ Gale Crater for a period of approximately two years. In every way Curiosity is an upgraded, super-charged version of the rovers that have preceded her. The Pathfinder rover tested out many of the concepts that led to the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity and now MSL has incorporated lessons learned to take more robust scientific explorations of the Martian surface.

The "Sky-Crane" jetpack that will be used to slowly lower the MSL rover to the Martian surface. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

What’s Up for March?

Jane Houston Jones from JPL provides a video report on the happenings in space this month, and what you can see in the night sky in March: the MESSENGER spacecraft goes into orbit around Mercury on the 18th, and you can see the swift planet in the evening skies, too! Meanwhile, celebrate Sun-Earth day on the 19th, and view the sun through solar safe telescopes.

Jones was also featured on a recent 365 Days of Astronomy podcast, talking with Jane Platt and providing a “Sneak Peek at the Springtime Skies.”

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

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.