NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission is preparing to set down a large, mobile laboratory, the rover Curiosity, using precision landing technology that makes many of Mars’ most intriguing regions viable destinations for the first time. During the 23 months after landing, Curiosity will analyze dozens of samples drilled from rocks or scooped from the ground as it explores with greater range than any previous Mars rover.
“Plans for the Mars Science Laboratory call for launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, between Nov. 25 and Dec.18, 2011, and arrival at Mars in August 2012.”
Curiosity will carry the most advanced payload of scientific gear ever used on Mars’ surface, a payload more than 10 times as massive as those of earlier Mars rovers. Its assignment: Investigate whether conditions have been favorable for microbial life and for preserving clues in the rocks about possible past life.
Plans for the Mars Science Laboratory call for launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, between Nov. 25 and Dec.18, 2011, and arrival at Mars in August 2012.
The spacecraft has been designed to steer itself during descent through Mars’ atmosphere with a series of S-curve maneuvers similar to those used by astronauts piloting NASA space shuttles. During the three minutes before touchdown, the spacecraft slows its descent with a parachute, then uses retro rockets mounted around the rim of an upper stage. In the final seconds, the upper stage acts as a sky crane, lowering the upright rover on a tether to the surface.Curiosity is about twice as long (about 3 meters or 10 feet) and five times as heavy as NASA’s twin Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, launched in 2003. It inherited many design elements from them, including six-wheel drive, a rocker-bogie suspension system and cameras mounted on a mast to help the mission’s team on Earth select exploration targets and driving routes. Unlike earlier rovers, Curiosity carries equipment to gather samples of rocks and soil, process them and distribute them to onboard test chambers inside analytical instruments.
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., builder of the Mars Science Laboratory, has engineered Curiosity to roll over obstacles up to 65 centimeters (25 inches) high and to travel up to about 200 meters (660 feet) per day on Martian terrain.
The rover’s electrical power will be supplied by a U.S. De- partment of Energy radioisotope power generator. The multi- mission radioisotope thermoelectric generator produces electricity from the heat of plutonium 238 radioactive decay. This long lived power supply gives the mission an operating lifespan on Mars’ surface of a full Mars year (687 Earth days) or more. At launch, the generator will provide about 110 watts of electrical power to operate the rover’s instruments, robotic arm, wheels, computers and radio. Warm fluids heated by the generator’s excess heat are plumbed throughout the rover to keep electronics and other systems at acceptable operating temperatures.
The mission has been designed to use radio relays via Mars orbiters as the principal means of communication between Curiosity and the Deep Space Network of antennas on Earth.
The overarching science goal of the mission is to assess whether the landing area has ever had or still has environmental conditions favorable to microbial life, both its habitability and its preservation.
Curiosity will land near the foot of a layered mountain inside Gale crater. Layers of this mountain contain minerals that form in water. The portion of the crater floor where Curiosity will land has an alluvial fan likely formed by water-carried sediments. Selection of Gale followed consideration of more than 30 Mar- tian locations by more than 100 scientists participating in a series of open workshops.
Selection of a landing site of prime scientific interest has benefited from examining candidate sites with NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter since 2006, from earlier orbiters’ ob- servations, and from a capability of landing within a target area only about 20 kilometers (12 miles) long. That precision, about a five-fold improvement on earlier Mars landings, makes fea- sible sites that would otherwise be excluded for encompassing nearby unsuitable terrain. The Gale landing site is so close to the crater wall, it would not have been considered safe if the mission were not using this improved precision.
Advancing the technologies for precision landing of a heavy payload will yield research benefits beyond the returns from Mars Science Laboratory itself. Those same capabilities would be important for later missions both to pick up rocks on Mars and bring them back to Earth, and conduct extensive surface exploration for Martian life.
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