NASA’s Curiosity ‘rover on steroids’ set for Mars

24 Nov 2011

The payload fairing containing MSL rolls out of the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility. Photo credit: NASA

NASA’s most advanced mobile robotic laboratory ever is locked and loaded, preparing for take-off this Saturday from Cape Canaveral. It will feature the car-size Curiosity rover, described as a ‘rover on steroids’.

This rover is loaded with more scientific capability than any ever sent to another planet. It is carrying 10 instruments to search for evidence about whether Mars had environments favourable for microbial life, including the chemical ingredients for life. It will weigh 15 times as much as its predecessors’ (Spirit and Opportunity) science payloads.
The Mars Science Laboratory, which will carry the Curiosity rover is now sitting atop an Atlas V rocket awaiting lift-off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Saturday, 26 November 2011 at 10:02 am EDT.

Exploring Mars in 2012

If lift-off is successful on Saturday – NASA says there’s a 30pc chance of the mission having to be aborted due to risky weather conditions – Curiosity is set to land on Mars in August 2012.
The one-tonne rover will examine Gale Crater during a nearly two-year prime mission.
Curiosity will land near the base of a layered mountain three miles (five kilometres) high inside the crater.
The rover will investigate whether environmental conditions ever have been favourable for the development of microbial life and preserved evidence of those conditions.
“Gale gives us a superb opportunity to test multiple potentially habitable environments and the context to understand a very long record of early environmental evolution of the planet,” said John Grotzinger, project scientist for the Mars Science Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “The portion of the crater where Curiosity will land has an alluvial fan likely formed by water-carried sediments. Layers at the base of the mountain contain clays and sulfates, both known to form in water.”

Features of the latest NASA rover:

  • Curiosity is twice as long and five times as heavy as earlier Mars rovers.
  • A mast extending to 7 feet (2.1 metres) above ground will provide height for cameras and a laser-firing instrument to study targets from a distance.
  • Instruments on a seven-foot-long (2.1-metre-long) arm will study targets up close. Analytical instruments inside the rover will determine the composition of rock and soil samples acquired with the arm’s powdering drill and scoop.
  • Other instruments will characterise the environment, including the weather and natural radiation that will affect future human missions.
  • The rover will use a laser to look inside rocks and release their gasses so its spectrometer can analyse and send the data back to Earth.

This artist concept features NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, a mobile robot for investigating Mars’ past or present ability to sustain microbial life
Curiosity has a set of tools at the end of the rover’s arm, which extends about two metres (seven feet). Two instruments on the arm can study rocks up close. Also, a drill can collect sample material from inside of rocks and a scoop can pick up samples of soil. The arm can sieve the samples and deliver fine powder to instruments inside the rover for thorough analysis.

A rover on steroids

“This rover, Curiosity rover, is really a rover on steroids. It’s an order of magnitude more capable than anything we have ever launched to any planet in the solar system. It will go longer, it will discover more than we can possibly imagine,” said Colleen Hartman, assistant associate administrator in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, today.

NASA launch director Omar Baez said today that the plan is to roll the vehicle out of the Vertical Integration Facility on Friday morning.
“We should be on the way to the pad by 8a.m. We’ve had our normal challenges and hiccups that we have in these kinds of major operations, but things have gone extremely smoothly and we’re fully prepared to go on Saturday morning. We hope that the weather cooperates,” said Peter Theisinger, MSL project manager from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

According to NASA, Saturday’s Launch day weather is predicted to be favorable, with only a 30pc chance of conditions prohibiting lift-off.
So what will be the roll call on Saturday? The launch team members will assemble at their computers and communication consoles at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station about three to four hours before the launch of the Atlas V rocket carrying the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft.
The NASA launch manager (the aforementioned Omar Baez) is the highest authority during the countdown and will provide NASA’s “go/no-go” decision to the mission director.
Before lift-off, the launch manager will check with the launch team to make sure all the criteria are met and that the payload and rocket are ready to go.
NASA Television’s countdown launch commentary will begin at 4:30am PST (7:30am EST) on  Saturday The NASA blog will also begin providing countdown updates.

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic