Aug 13

One Week on Mars with Curiosity

NASA’s Curiosity Rover has spent a week on Mars and while it has yet to even start its actual mission there this project has produced some of the most exciting and visceral moments out of the space program in recent memory.

For those of you who stayed up late to watch the Entry, Decent and Landing (EDL) you know it was an exciting night. Watching live as the JPL and the audience lived through the 7 Minutes of Terror we were all biting our nails waiting and waiting to hear back that Curiosity landed safe and sound. Thankfully the Mars Odyssey was able to get into position in time to relay the first picture of Mars from the newly landed rover.

The next day we were gifted with a picture of the MSL mid decent with its parachute deployed.

MSL Landing

And even a picture of the aftermath of the EDL phase. Showing all the individual components of the entry vehicle spread across the surface of Mars.

MSL Landing Components

After the landing happened NASA passed over the area to see how close they were to the projected landing zone. It cannot be overstated the precision with which the NASA team was able to land this rover.

After a quick OTA update (if you think updating your smartphone is nerve wracking imagine patching a $2.5 billion device with no way of un-bricking it). We were greeted with some color HD pictures of the surface of mars that makes is seem like it could be right from our backyard.

Closeup of Wheel

The latest is a stitched together Panorama

All of this has been so much fun to watch. NASA has done a great job of showcasing the amazing work being done. In the coming years robotic exploration is going to be the standard. While we wait for the resurgence of a manned space program the work done by NASA and the JPL during this project is truly inspirational.

Nov 27

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.

 

Further Reading:

Scientific goals: http://msl-scicorner.jpl.nasa.gov/ScienceGoals/

Instruments: http://msl-scicorner.jpl.nasa.gov/Instruments/