Sunday, August 12, 2012

New Mars Rover Curiosity

For today's blog posting I just have to report about the success of the Curiosity Mars Rover program.   
With its rover named Curiosity, Mars Science Laboratory mission is part of NASA's Mars Exploration Program, a long-term effort of robotic exploration of the red planet. Curiosity was designed to assess whether Mars ever had an environment able to support small life forms called microbes.

To find out, the rover carries the biggest, most advanced suite of instruments ever sent to the martian surface. The rover will analyze samples scooped from the soil and drilled from rocks. The record of the planet's climate and geology is essentially written in the rocks and soi" -- in their formation, structure, and chemical composition. The rover's on board laboratory will study rocks, soils, and the local geologic setting in order to detect chemical building blocks of life (e.g., forms of carbon) on Mars and will assess what the martian environment was like in the past.
10:02 a.m. EST, Nov. 26, 2011

Launch Vehicle:
United Launch Alliance, Atlas V

1:32 a.m EDT, Aug. 6, 2012
Curiosity is headed to Gale Crater.  In the picture above, you can see where other Mars landers and rovers have successfully landed on Mars too.
Gale Crater is about 96 miles wide. It has many rock layers for Curiosity to explore, from canyons to channels, all in one place!
At Gale, Curiosity will study Martian rocks and minerals that hold clues to whether Mars ever could have supported small life forms called microbes.  The picture above, which has been adjusted with color, was taken by the Opportunity Mars rover.  

Curiosity will pick up where other Mars rovers left off. Beyond signs of water, the rover will look for signs of organics, the chemical building blocks of life.

Curiosity landed within the yellow ellipse, on flat terrain near Gale´s central mound.

The 3-mile-high mound has multiple rock layers. Each rock layer reveals a different time in Mars´ history. Some have clays and sulfates, which both form in water.

Here are some of Curiosity´s main tools for studying Mars. You can see that the rover is packed with tools! That´s why Curiosity is so large. It takes a car-sized rover to carry so many tools.

Curiosity is twice the size of Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity and five times as heavy.

Among Curiosity´s tools are seventeen cameras, a laser to zap rocks, and a drill to collect rock samples.
The laser can vaporize a thin layer of rock and tell from the color of the sparks what the rock is made of.

Curiosity will be able to send weather reports from Mars too! Two little booms on the rover´s mast (“neck”) called REMS will monitor temperature, wind speed and direction. REMS also measures pressure and ultraviolet light.

Curiosity´s seven-foot-long arm has tools built into its “hand.” The “hand” will reach out and touch Mars, finding out about what the past environment was like.

To power these instruments, Curiosity uses electricity provided by a battery that is continuously recharged by heat from the natural radioactive decay of plutonium-238. It will take about 110 watts of electricity to run the rover and its instruments.

The spacecraft entered the Martian atmosphere 78 miles above the planet. It took the rover approximately seven minutes to reach the ground. 

The friction of the atmosphere slowed the spacecraft from 13,000 mph to about 900 mph.
The heat shield reached around 3,800 degrees Fahrenheit!

A supersonic parachute slowed the spacecraft from about 900 mph to 180 mph, the speed of a Formula One race car.

While slowing down using the parachute and with five miles to go until landing, the heat shield was ejected, exposing the rover to the Martian atmosphere. 

The engines  ignited during the last mile of descent.  These engines were used to control and slow down the descent.  Radar was used to measure the speed and altitude. 

Next the actual rover was lowered from the descent vehicle by three nylon ropes, called a "Sky Crane". 

By the time Curiosity touched down, the rover was slowed to about two miles per hour.  Less than seven minutes before, it was traveling at 13,000 miles per hour!

When the sky crane sensed that Curiosity had touched down, the cables were automatically cut.
The descent vehicle with sky crane was automatically "flown" a safe distance away from the rover before crash-landing.  For the first time, a Mars rover landed with wheels touching down first, instead of airbags.
Curiosity will start exploring Mars after raising its “head” and doing a “self-check” to make sure all systems are go. New software will also be uploaded to Curiosity's computers.  It will take several days to a few weeks after landing before Curiosity will be ready to roll.
Curiosity will tell us about what it finds through the Deep Space Network...Three centers with large communications antennas receive the signals: in California, Spain, and Australia.
Curiosity will send data back to Earth´s Deep Space Network through Mars orbiters.
It takes about 5 to 20 minutes for a signal to travel between Earth and Mars, depending on where the planets are in their orbits.
Once the rover starts to move, Curiosity´s schedule will vary based on what she finds. She may take pictures one day, use her laser the next, drill into a rock for a sample, or simply drive to a new place.
Curiosity is expected to work for one Martian year, or about two Earth years.

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