Curiosity to Land on the Red Planet

Curiosity: A model at the Discovery Science Center

The Mars Rover Curiosity will land on the Red Planet on August 5, 2012 (Pacific Time).

A collaboration between JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) and NASA, Mars Rover Curiosity (SUV), otherwise known as Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), has technology that succeeds its predecessors, Spirit and Opportunity (golf carts) and Sojourner (microwave). NASA launched Curiosity on November 26, 2011 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Curiosity is expected to land on August 5, 2012 on the Aeolis Palus region of the Gale crater. Curiosity‘s four objectives are: 1) determine whether Mars is suitable for life; 2) study Mars’ climate; 3) study Mars’ climate; 4) plan future human mission to Mars.

THE BASICS

  • Weight: 2,000 lbs.
  • Length: >9.8 ft.
  • Distance Covered (per day): ~600 ft
  • Lifetime: >687 Earth days (1 Martian year)

SPECIFICATIONS

  • Power: Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (RTG) – uses the decay of plutonium-238 to generate 2.5 kilowatt hours per day
  • Heat Rejection System: To keep Curiosity at optimal temperatures since temperatures on Mars vary dramatically (30°C  to -127°C)
  • Computers: “Rover Compute Element” – tolerates extreme radiation from space; Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) – rover navigation
  • Communications: X band transmitter – communicate directly with Earth; UHF Electra-Lite software defined radio – communicate with Mars orbiters
  • Mobility: 6 wheels in rocker-bogie suspension – serve as landing gear

COOL GADGETS

  • Cameras: 1. MastCam – multiple spectra and true color imaging; 2. Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) – microscopic images of rock and soil; 3. MSL Descent Imager (MARDI) – color images to map the  surrounding terrain and landing location
  • ChemCam: laser to vaporize samples up to 7 meters away for analysis, with the laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS) and micro-imager (RMI)
  • Alpha-particle X-ray spectrometer (APXS): map the spectra of X-rays to elemental composition of samples
  • Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin): identify and quantify abundance of minerals on Mars
  • Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM): analyze organics and gases from atmospheric and solid samples
  • Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN): measure hydrogen, ice, and water at and near Martian surface
  • Rover Environmental Monitoring System (REMS): measure atmospheric pressure, humidity, wind currents and direction, air and ground temperature, UV levels
  • MSL Entry Descent and Landing Instrumentation (MEDLI): measure aerothermal environments, sub-surface heat shield response, vehicle orientation, atmospheric density; detect heat shield separation
  • Hazard Avoidance Cameras (HazCams): use light to capture 3-D image to protect the rover from crashing
  • Navigation Cameras (Navcams): use visible light to capture 3-D images for navigation

LANDING

Landing Sequence

  • EDL (Entry, Descent, Landing): also called the “7 minutes of Terror,” because any malfunction or any misstep means failure of the mission
  • Landing Sequence: “6 vehicles, 76 pyrotechnic devices, 500,000 lines of code, zero margin of error”; from 13,000 miles an hour to 0 miles and hour; 1,600 degrees upon entry
  • Mar’s atmosphere is 100 times thinner than Earth’s so it is harder for MSL to slow down
  1. Guided Entry: control the craft to approximate landing site region
  2. Parachute Descent: supersonic parachute (can withstand 65,000 lbs of force but only weighs 100 lbs.) deploys at 10 km altitude
  3. Powered Descent: cut parachute off and rocket thrusters (Mars Lander Engine, MLE) extend out and slow the descent
  4. Sky Crane: lower the rover with a 21-foot tether wheels down onto the Martian crater to prevent the rockets from making dust clouds; the bridle is cut and the rock thrusters fly away to a safe distance

INTERESTING FACTS

  • Each wheel on Curiosity has a specific traction pattern that is Morse code for “JPL”
  • It takes 13 minutes and 46 seconds to relay signals from Earth to Curiosity

References

Grecius, Tony, ed. “Mars Science Laboratory.” NASA. NASA, July 2012. Web. 27 July 2012.

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