MSL & Curiosity

NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory launched yesterday on its 9 month journey to Mars. Now that NASA has retired the Space Shuttle and ended our manned space missions for the time being the future of space exploration is going to be a partnership between robots and humans. The latest version of this partnership is the Curiosity rover. Curiosity is impressive on virtually every level.

First of all, the sheer size of this rover is impressive. It’s the size of a small SUV at 10 feet long, 9 feet wide and 7 feet high. It has 20 inch diameter wheels a 7 foot long arm and it weighs in at just about 2000 pounds.

The Curiosity rover is also referred to as a mobile laboratory. The MSL mission’s overall scientific goal is to explore the landing region and assess the area as a potential habitat for life, past or present. This objective will help to expand our knowledge of the history of Mars and even help determine the feasibility of future manned missions. To accomplish the mission Curiosity is outfitted with 10 scientific instruments that are the culmination of the best sensors developed from groups in the US, Spain, Finland, Russia, France, Canada, and Germany. It’s truly a worldwide effort to advance humanity’s knowledge of another planet.

Even the landing system is revolutionary. For the Spirit and Opportunity rovers NASA used an airbag method to land the rovers. This method was successful, however, the first generation of rovers weighed less than 400 pounds, Curiosity weighs 5 times more. This approach to a landing puts a lot of strain on the rover in the landing process; the sensitive instruments on Curiosity may be damaged if landed the same way. In addition to these concerns, the other limitation is that NASA can only predict the landing site within a 50 mile radius. The solution to these concerns is a new guided entry system with a sky crane.

The rover, inside its heat shield, will enter the atmosphere at 13,200 mph, during decent the speed is reduced to 900 mph before a parachute is deployed at an altitude of 7 miles and slows decent to 80 mph. At about 1 mile off the ground the Mars landing engines activate and slow the decent to 1.7miles per hour. At an about 66 feet off the ground, the sky crane begins to lower Curiosity to the ground. Once Curiosity detects a safe landing, the tethers disconnect and the sky crane flies off to land a safe 500 feet from the rover. This is the first time NASA has tested this landing system. It’ll be an exciting day to watch the decent in action.

The Mars Science Laboratory mission is the latest and greatest project in the robotics field. I’m eagerly looking forward to August 2012 when Curiosity is expected to arrive at Mars.


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