The Next Generation in Martian Rovers

NASA is again attempting to reach the surface of Mars with the development of Mars Science Laboratory – a rover also known as Curiosity. This state of the art equipment takes advantage of innovative precision landing technology in order to reach areas of Mars that were previously not viable (other recent Martian vehicles include the Spirit and Opportunity Rovers and the Phoenix Mars Lander). The program is managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory under NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

The rover will explore Mars for 23 months (687 Earth days) after landing, and analyze rock samples that are either drilled or scooped from the ground. The goal of the mission is to investigate whether Martian conditions have been favorable for microbial life and to study the climate and geology of Mars.

Curiosity will reach Mars on August 6, 2012 after 9 months of travel. The spacecraft containing the rover will steer itself through the Martian atmosphere and deploy a parachute just 3 minutes before touchdown to slow its descent. Due to the excessive speeds upon entry, the craft will also use retro rockets to continue to slow the descent. Just prior to touchdown, the upper stage acts as a ‘sky crane’ and separates the rover from the stage using tethers.

Features of the Rover include 6-wheel drive and cameras mounted high above the vehicle to help with navigation and scouting. The Rover will be able to move at 90 m/hr and roll over obstacles that are 75 cm in height. Most importantly, Curiosity has sophisticated equipment to gather rock and soil samples and process them on board with analytical instruments. The vehicle and instruments are powered by a radioisotope thermoelectric generator, which transform the heat generated when plutonium-238 decays, into electricity.

Due to the distance from Earth to Mars, there is an extreme lag in communications with the Rover (around 14 minutes). To overcome this, the mission control team will use radio relays between the Rover, Mars Orbiters, and Earth, to maintain communication.

Landing sites were examined using the 2006 Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. In June 2012, the targeted landing site is the Gale Crater. The spacecraft will target an ellipse that is 12 miles long and 4 miles wide. This is a preferable site because part of the Northern crater wall was likely carried away by water, identify a hard, light-toned rock that has yet to be determined, and study clay and sulfate salts in strata, which result from wet environments in various canyons and fracture networks.

Instrument payloads include several cameras (the MastCam, Mars Hand Lens Imager, the Mars Descent Imager, the Hazard Avoidance cameras, and the Navcams), CheMin, which is a chemistry and Mineralogy x-ray diffraction and x-ray fluorescence instrument, Sample analysis at Mars to analyze organics and gases (including a gas chromatograph, a quadruple mass spectrometer, and a laser spectrometer), the Radiation Assessment Detector, the Dynamic albedo of Neutrons, a Rover Environmental Monitoring Station, and the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer, the ChemCam to examine atoms excited by a laser beam released from rock or soil samples, and  the MSL entry descent and landing instrumentation . Don’t forget to check out the landing in August and for more information, check out these cool sites!

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