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NASA's Curiosity Rover gears up for Mars

By

November 10, 2011

Front view of Curiosity Mars rover  (Image: NASA)

Front view of Curiosity Mars rover (Image: NASA)

Image Gallery (26 images)

We've had our sights on NASA's Curiosity Rover (also known as the Mars Science Laboratory or MSL) for quite some time now. Well, it's finally ready and in a few short weeks, this amazingly advanced one-ton (900 kg) explorer will find itself atop a massive Atlas V rocket for the eight-month, 354 million-mile (570 million-km) trip to our red neighbor - the culmination of over seven years of development and US$2.5 billion in funding.

Space exploration doesn't come cheaply, as its detractors are quick to point out, but its cost is easier to understand when one considers the amazing conditions such craft must endure, and the array of complex, sensitive instruments they carry.

Once the MSL lands (using parachutes and a unique "Sky Crane," as depicted in the excellent NASA animation video at the bottom of the page), it will encounter gravity only 38 percent as strong as Earth's, harsh temperatures ranging from -130°F to 32°F (-90C to 0C), an atmosphere of almost pure carbon dioxide and no planet-wide magnetic field. That can make navigation challenging, to say the least, especially with the added complication that command transmissions will take close to 14 minutes to travel from Earth.

Curiosity descent sequence schematic  (Image: NASA)

Curiosity's initial mission, currently scheduled to last one Martian year (99 earth-weeks), is to determine whether its carefully-chosen landing site, the Gale Crater area, contains evidence of previous and current habitability. Of the three conditions considered essential to sustain life - liquid water, an energy source and a handful of organic (carbon-containing) compounds - the Gale area is known to have contained water at some point. Sensors in the craft's heat shield will also gather data about the Martian atmosphere as it descends.

Once deployed on the Martian surface in early August of 2012, the 118 inch-long (3 m) Curiosity will be able to tool about at 295 feet (90 m) per hour on 20-inch (.5 m) diameter wheels. When fully deployed, its mast will reach to 7 feet (2.1 m).

Curiosity Rover schematic  (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The MSL's science payload of ten analytical instruments weighs in at 165 lbs (75 kg), roughly fifteen times the weight of those carried by the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Powered by a combination of lithium-ion batteries and a radioisotope thermoelectric generator, the MSL is literally bristling with sensitive devices designed to explore the area above, below and around its Gale Crater landing area. These include:

Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS) - Contributed by the Canadian Space Agency, this instrument will determine rock and soil composition by analyzing x-rays given off by samples exposed to a small amount of radioactive material.

Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) - Built by the French national space agency (laser and telescope) and Los Alamos National Laboratory (spectrometers and data processors), this device will hit a target rock sample with a one million watt infrared laser for five billionths of a second, then determine its composition by analyzing the spectrum of the resulting flash.

Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) - This experiment will use x-ray diffraction to analyze the chemical composition of soil and powdered rock samples gathered by Curiosity's robotic arm.

Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN) - Provided by the Russian Federal Space Agency, this device will shoot neutrons into the soil to detect water bound to minerals up to 20 inches (50 cm) deep. The word "albedo" here refers to "reflectance," as in the neutrons rebounding from contact with atomic nuclei in the ground.

Location of DAN package on Curiosity rover  (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Mars Descent Imager (MARDI) - One of three cameras provided for MSL by Malin Space Science Systems, MARDI will capture full-color aerial video of the surrounding area as Curiosity descends.

Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) - Developed and operated by Malin Space Science Systems, this powerful macro-lensed camera will capture high-resolution images of rocks, soil and the surrounding area.

Mast Camera - Twin cameras, also provided by Malin Space Science Systems, mounted 10 inches (25cm) apart, 6.5 feet (2m) above the ground, capable of imaging Curiosity's surroundings in exquisite detail.

Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) - NASA teamed up with Germany's national aerospace research center to construct the RAD, which will track high-energy atomic and subatomic particles bombarding Mars from the sun and other sources, such as remote supernovas.

Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS) - Provided by Spain, the REMS is essentially a fully-functioning meteorological laboratory that will measure wind speed and direction, air temperature and pressure, humidity and UV radiation for five minutes every hour throughout the entire mission (98 weeks).

Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) - Built by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, one of its tasks will be to heat powdered samples in tiny quartz crucibles then use a mass spectrometer to search the resultant gases for life's essential building blocks: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur and phosphorous.

The Curiosity/MSL mission, while incredibly ambitious, is also amazingly international in scope. Indeed, it comes close to realizing the "United Earth" concept first discussed on Star Trek so many years ago - over 1.24 million names, submitted online and etched onto silicon chips, will accompany the rover to Mars. Simultaneously bringing humanity together as we expand our horizons seems like pretty darn good value for the money spent, all things considered. Keep an eye peeled for the launch on November 25th!

Source: NASA



About the Author
Randolph Jonsson A native San Franciscan, Randolph attended the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland before finding his way to the film business. Eventually, he landed a job at George Lucas' Industrial Light + Magic, where he worked on many top-grossing films in both the camera and computer graphics departments. A proud member of MENSA, he's passionate about technology, optimal health, photography, marine biology, writing, world travel and the occasional, well-crafted gin and tonic!   All articles by Randolph Jonsson
7 Comments

2.5 Billion!

Did you get that? $2.5 Billion dollars.

No wonder the USA is bankrupt and has people living in poverty with no free healthcare.

Doesn't seem like such a great country to me.

I just hope they don't find any life on Mars or they are destined to ruin it.

Australian
10th November, 2011 @ 07:01 pm PST

Just FYI, that's just 357 million a year.

For some perspective, the USA spends more on social welfare and entitlement programs IN ONE DAY than NASA gets for a budget for an entire year! The ONB budget is on-line and anyone can go check the numbers.

Yes, the USA is going broke at light speed but it isn't because of NASA. There is way too much vote-buying going on in Washington via government handouts.

The US Congress blows more than 357 million a year on congressional perks, highly-questionable office expenses, luxury travel, defending themselves against criminal charges and "entertainment."

Is it time to be outraged? YES. Just be informed about who, exactly, deserves your outrage!

Christopher Erickson
11th November, 2011 @ 09:27 am PST

Did you get that? $2.5 Billion dollars. The same was said about the moon landing, but there was no dollars on the lander and there will not be any on the Mars trip, all that money was and is spent here. We must get into space asap if we are to stand any chance of preventing the next big rock from wiping out life on Earth.

jocco
11th November, 2011 @ 09:48 am PST

Australian: NASA's annual budget of ~18 billion USD is about 0.5 % of the US federal budget (or about 0.1 % of US GDP). And that's money going to the advancement of science, which is a good cause I'd say.

This budget also enables the employment ~19,000 NASA staff and a large number of people in subcontractor companies.

I'd look elsewhere for reasons of economic problems. But that's offtopic in this thread.

Hmm
12th November, 2011 @ 06:06 am PST

That these endeavours cost what they cost is simply a fact of life, like the millions of people dying from hunger are a fact of life. It´s humanity as it is. But do not forget that spinoff from this sort of research has had spinoffs that now enable us to better lives of the hungry in ways that without that research may have been impossible. In this light look at this sort of thing as a double whammy, the research betters our understanding of humanity as a whole enabling humanity to help itself and this Mars rover might be a step in a possible solution in a distant future to develop Mars (Terraforming, it´s called) to serve as a second haven to humanity.

What, however, surprises me about this Mars rover is the complexity of it´s delivery on Mars. It´s almost as if it´s creators are tempting fate to have something fail during descent.

bas
12th November, 2011 @ 07:07 am PST

Not to mention the untold amount of all the black budget expenses of the military that we cant even begin to examine because its secret. From what Ive heard its way bigger then NASA could ever dream to spend. NASA at least has legitimate projects beneficial to mankind.

OnlineFirst
12th November, 2011 @ 08:03 am PST

This new Rover is a complete and utter disgrace. America should be Ashamed to publicly claim that they had any part of it's development. Look at the construction of the Rover. What part of it has been designed to protect it from say falling objects, or Dust buildup or Rocks getting into the Tracts/Wheels. Everything looks to be exposed to a degree that makes it look like a Technics Lego Set. There engineers need to speak with some Extreme Off-road Vehicle design Engineers or something. You know Like Roll Bars and such.

Also look at the Transport/Drop-off method. They should get with some Scifi/Futuristic Graphics Artist along with some Mechanical Engineers to work out what is actually achievable and make something Practical/While also being Capable.

SpaceMann
16th November, 2011 @ 11:01 am PST
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