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

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

5 Things About the Next Mars Rover


NASA’s next Mars rover, the Mars Science Laboratory, or Curiosity, is scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral in Florida in late 2011, and arrive at a yet undecided region of Mars in August 2012. The goal of Curiosity is to assess whether Mars ever had an environment capable of supporting microbial life and conditions favorable for preserving clues about life, if it existed. JPL put together a list of five intriguing things about Curiosity:

An artist's concept of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (left) serves to compare it with Spirit, one of NASA's twin Mars Exploration Rovers. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

1. How Big Is It?: The Mini Cooper-sized rover is much bigger than its rover predecessors, Spirit, Opportunity and Pathfinder. Curiosity is twice as long (about 2.8 meters, or 9 feet) and four times as heavy as Spirit and Opportunity, which landed in 2004. Pathfinder, about the size of a microwave oven, landed in 1997.

2. Landing–Where and How: In November 2008, possible landing sites were narrowed to four finalists, all linked to ancient wet conditions. NASA will select a site believed to be among the most likely places to hold a geological record of a favorable environment for life. The site must also meet safe-landing criteria. The landing system is similar to a sky crane heavy-lift helicopter. 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). Other innovations enable a landing within a smaller target area than previous Mars missions.

For more info about the landing site selection, see this JPL article.

3. On-board Toolkit: Curiosity will use 10 science instruments to examine rocks, soil and the atmosphere. A laser will vaporize patches of rock from a distance, and another instrument will search for organic compounds. Other instruments include mast-mounted cameras to study targets from a distance, arm-mounted instruments to study targets they touch, and deck-mounted analytical instruments to determine the composition of rock and soil samples acquired with a powdering drill and a scoop.

4. Big Wheels: Each of Curiosity’s six wheels has an independent drive motor. The two front and two rear wheels also have individual steering motors. This steering allows the rover to make 360-degree turns in-place on the Mars surface. The wheels’ diameter is double the wheel diameter on Spirit and Opportunity, which will help Curiosity roll over obstacles up to 75 centimeters (30 inches) high.

5. Rover Power: A nuclear battery will enable Curiosity to operate year-round and farther from the equator than would be possible with only solar power.

For more about Curiosity see the NASA webpage about the Mars Science Lab.

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.

Best Reality TV Ever: Camera Will Take Video of Next Mars Rover Landing


Now THIS is what I call “must-see TV!” A camera on the next Mars Rover — MSL, also known as Curiosity – will start recording high-definition video about two minutes before the rover lands on Mars, currently scheduled for August 2012. The Mars Descent Imager, or MARDI, will provide all of us Martian-wannabes with the first-ever ride along with the landing — and this will be a very unique landing, with the “Sky –Crane” lowering Curiosity to the planet’s surface. The video won’t be live, however – that’s way too much data for the spacecraft to send back to Earth at such an important event, but we will get to see it later. JPL provided a description of what the video should look like:

This Mars Descent Imager (MARDI) camera will fly on the Curiosity rover of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems

MARDI will start recording high-resolution video about two minutes before landing in August 2012. Initial frames will glimpse the heat shield falling away from beneath the rover, revealing a swath of Martian terrain below illuminated in afternoon sunlight. The first scenes will cover ground several kilometers (a few miles) across. Successive images will close in and cover a smaller area each second.

The full-color video will likely spin, then shake, as the Mars Science Laboratory mission’s parachute, then its rocket-powered backpack, slow the rover’s descent. The left-front wheel will pop into view when Curiosity extends its mobility and landing gear.

The spacecraft’s own shadow, unnoticeable at first, will grow in size and slide westward across the ground. The shadow and rover will meet at a place that, in the final moments, becomes the only patch of ground visible, about the size of a bath towel and underneath the rover.

Dust kicked up by the rocket engines during landing may swirl as the video ends and Curiosity’s surface mission can begin.

All of this, recorded at about four frames per second and close to 1,600 by 1,200 pixels per frame, will be stored safely into the Mars Descent Imager’s own flash memory during the landing. But the camera’s principal investigator, Michael Malin of Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego, and everyone else will need to be patient. Curiosity will be about 250 million kilometers (about 150 million miles) from Earth at that point. It will send images and other data to Earth via relay by one or two Mars orbiters, so the daily data volume will be limited by the amount of time the orbiters are overhead each day.

“We will get it down in stages,” said Malin. “First we’ll have thumbnails of the descent images, with only a few frames at full scale.”

Subsequent downlinks will deliver additional frames, selected based on what the thumbnail versions show. The early images will begin to fulfill this instrument’s scientific functions. “I am really looking forward to seeing this movie. We have been preparing for it a long time,” Malin said. The lower-resolution version from thumbnail images will be comparable to a YouTube video in image quality. The high-definition version will not be available until the full set of images can be transmitted to Earth, which could take weeks, or even months, sharing priority with data from other instruments.”

Read more about the MARDI camera and MSL at JPL’s website.

Curiosity Gets Her Wheels

She’s a rover with places to go and things to do, so one of the main components of NASA’s next Mars rover, the Mars Science Lab (named Curiosity) is wheels. Last week, the wheels and a suspension system were installed on the rover, an important step in getting ready for her mission to Mars. Launch is currently scheduled for sometime between November 25 and Decemeber 18, 2011, and Curiosity’s mission is to study its landing site for habitable environments – both ancient and current.
Continue reading “Curiosity Gets Her Wheels”

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