Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Image Gallery: NASA's Curiosity Mars Rover





Like life, space exploration can be a process of two steps forward, one step back -- except on a cosmic scale. Mars missions, all unmanned, have had mixed success since the U.S. probe Mariner 4 made the first successful fly-by of the planet in 1965. More Mars-bound spacecraft from the U.S., the Soviet Union, Japan and the European Space Agency have failed than succeeded. But the twin Mars Expeditionary Rovers called Spirit and Opportunity performed well beyond scientists' expectations after landing in January 2004. Their discoveries included firm proof that water has existed on Mars. The next leap forward in Mars research is the Mars Science Laboratory, shown here in an artist's rendering. The rover, named Curiosity, was launched atop an Atlas V rocket on November 26, 2011 and is scheduled to begin its work on Mars when it lands there in August of 2012. It is 10 feet (3 m) long, 9 feet (2.7 m) wide and 7 feet (2.1 m) tall. The rover's mission? To search for signs the planet could -- or did -- support life. In this gallery, we'll take a look at the Curiosity mission's buildup and examine some of the stuff that will be used after its landing on Mars. In the next photo, see who won NASA's rover naming contest.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

As a name, Mars Science Laboratory is descriptive but hardly catchy. Through a contest, NASA enlisted the help of more than 9,000 students in naming the rover. The winner was 12-year-old Clara Ma of Lenexa, Kan., shown here in front of a model of the craft. She picked a fitting name that encapsulates both the rover's scouting ability and the human impulse that's sending it to Mars: Curiosity. Next, see the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. As part of the prize Clara was able to write her name on the rover, can you guess where?
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

As part of her award for selecting the name of the Mars Science Laboratory rover, Clara Ma got to visit the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. in June 2009. She entered the clean room where Curiosity is being assembled, and signed her name on the belly pan of the rover. Between "Clara Ma" and "Curiosity," she wrote her name in Chinese: Ma (horse) and two characters that mean Jade from Heaven. What do you think Curiosity's face looks like?
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This handsome face is the sensing unit Curiosity will use to navigate its surroundings. The two square openings are a telephoto camera (left) and a wide-angle camera that shoot full-color, high-definition video. The smaller circles next to them are a stereo navigation camera and a twin for backup. The big circle in the white box at the top is ChemCam, short for Chemistry and Camera. This device combines a laser and a telescope, and can determine what's in a rock 23 feet (7 meters) away.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In July 2010, NASA engineers finished installing Curiosity's six wheels and rotated them all at once. The rover's wheel mobility system has 10 motors -- six for driving and four for steering. The wheels and suspension system double as Curiosity's landing gear. Have you ever seen a robotic arm bend and stretch?
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Bend and stretch: Curiosity's robotic arm extends 7.5 feet (2.3 meters) from its perch in a clean room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Sept. 3, 2010. The arm has two joints at the wrist, one at the elbow and two at the shoulder. It will extract samples from Martian rocks, pulverizing them and delivering them to a set of testing instruments. A bundle of equipment totaling 73 pounds (33 kg) on the arm will include a magnifying camera, a rock brush, a percussive drill and an element-identifying spectrometer, as well as devices for scooping and separating samples.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Curiosity takes a test drive Sept. 10, 2010. Its special six-wheeled suspension system has no springs or axles, yet helps it remain stable on uneven terrain. Up next, see Curiosity's Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) unit.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In January, 2011, engineers installed Curiosity's Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) unit, a highly sophisticated lab for analyzing samples of the Martian atmosphere and surface. "It has been a long haul getting to this point," SAM lead scientist Paul Mahaffy said. "We've taken a set of experiments that would occupy a good portion of a room on Earth and put them into that box the size of a microwave oven." The 88-pound (40 kg) SAM includes two ovens for heating samples up to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit (1,000 degrees Celsius), as well as spectrographs for determining their composition. Among the other items in the unit are a pump the size of a soda can that spins 1,700 times a minute, and more than 650 yards (600 meters) of wiring. See how the SAM unit works in the next photo.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

A schematic diagram of Curiosity's Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) unit, which will search for signs of microbial life by analyzing gases extracted from soil and rock samples and the atmosphere. The rover's robotic arm deposits solid samples in the tubes at upper right, and gases enter through the trumpet-shaped tubes in front. In the sample manipulation system, a wheel of cups moves powdered samples along. Of the 74 cups, 59 are made of quartz and can be heated to pull gases from powder. Nine are used for processing materials with moderate heat and chemicals instead of high heat, and six are for measuring. Gas mixtures are sorted out by the gas chromatograph and identified by the quadrupole mass spectrometer, with special attention to elements known to support life, such as oxygen, nitrogen and carbon. A tunable laser spectrometer assesses concentrations of chemicals like water, carbon dioxide and methane.
Image Credit: NASA

Here's the Atlas V launch vehicle we mentioned earlier. It carried the Mars Science Laboratory into space during the November 2011 liftoff. It's a venerable, stalwart rocket in NASA's arsenal, the same type that carried the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter into space in 2005. Can you guess what they used to protect the rover from the scalding temperatures generated by the friction of tearing through the Martian atmosphere?
Image Credit: NASA

To protect Curiosity from the searing temperatures generated by plummeting through the Martian atmosphere, scientists have created the largest heat shield ever made for a planetary mission. Here technicians at Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver are attaching the Mars Science Laboratory Entry, Descent and Landing Instrument (MEDLI), which will measure pressure and temperature during the descent. The somewhat triangular white area on the shield will help calibrate a camera recording Curiosity's approach and landing. In the next photo, see the high-tech camera that takes high-definition pictures for Curiosity.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lockheed Martin

This camera is the Mars Descent Imager (MARDI), which will face downward and shoot high-definition images at approximately four frames per second as Curiosity reaches the Martian surface. Though scientists hope they can use them to help improve future Martian landings, the real drama will be going on above the craft. Check out the new landing system NASA developed for Curiosity in the next photo.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems

Occasionally science fact trumps science fiction. NASA has developed a spectacular new landing system for Curiosity. Because it is about the size of a mid-sized SUV and literally weighs a ton (900 kg), the usual landing system using airbags was ruled out. Instead, a parachute attached to a shell with Curiosity tucked underneath will drift toward the surface. Once it has slowed sufficiently and the heat shield has separated, Curiosity will be released from the shell, revealing a powered craft on its back that NASA calls a sky crane. Acting like a jetpack, the sky crane will gently place Curiosity's wheels on Martian soil, then release the rover and fly away to a crash landing in a remote location. Can you guess what Curiosity's starting point will look like?
Image Credit: NASA/JPL

Curiosity's Martian starting point will look something like this. The ellipse indicates an area within a northern part of Gale Crater, which scientists believe has features that were formed by water. NASA has planned the mission to last one Martian year (about two Earth years) after landing, though Curiosity's twin cousins, Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Discovery, exceeded expectations and extended their service. We'll get another view of the landing site in the next picture.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/UA

Here's another look at and near the planned Curiosity landing site. Its appeal is that it offers a variety of potential areas for examination. As highlighted, there are fresh craters, sulfates, hard rocks and earth of various ages with which Curiosity can busy itself. It's quite a topological to-do list for the rover. To give some idea of the scale involved, the landing target ellipse, circled in white, is 12.4 miles (20 kilometers) by 15.5 miles (25 kilometers).
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Whenever you're talking about extensive Mars exploration, it tends to make the news, and even attract interest from science-minded celebrities. Here filmmaker James Cameron -- of Terminator (1984) and Avatar (2009) fame -- and a group of scientists watch the motions of an engineering model of Curiosity's camera mast. Acclaimed director, deep-sea diving adventurer and all-around science buff Cameron is a member of the camera team for the Curiosity mission.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Here we see what holds the rover and its descent stage during their voyage to Mars -- the spacecraft's "aeroshell." The aeroshell is formed by making the heat shield and the ship's back shell into the top and bottom of an encapsulation that holds and protects the serious exploratory hardware. The heat shield is on top. The aeroshell will keep the heat at bay during the descent to Mars. Next, we'll watch as the Curiosity rover blasts off for Mars.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

And away it goes! The Atlas V rocket clears the launch tower at Cape Canaveral in Florida. Its precious payload: the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) spacecraft. The November 26, 2011 launch was a success, sending the MSL's Curiosity rover on a nine-month cruise to Mars.
Image Credit: NASA/Darrell L. McCall

Engineers at NASA don't skimp on testing. This NASA aircraft performs a roll, during flight tests of Mars-landing radar apparatus that would be used on the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission. The testing equipment is inside a pod tucked under the aircraft's left wing. The test flights simulated what the radar on the MSL's descent stage will see as the spacecraft parachutes down through the Martian atmosphere.
Image Credit: NASA

We might call this the calm before the storm of liftoff. Here the Atlas V rocket stands inside a launch facility, topped by the Mars Science Laboratory and its rover Curiosity.
Image Credit: NASA/Dimitri Gerondidakis

Here we revisit Gale Crater in this artist's rendering, which shows a cross-section of the mountain that stands in the middle of the crater. The Curiosity landing area will be on or near the alluvial fan circled and indicated in blue. Of interest to NASA scientists is the existence in the Gale Crater area of clay minerals. The minerals are in a layer near the base of the mountain and will be within driving range of the landing site. The location of the clay minerals is highlighted here as a green band through the cross-section of the mountain (see upper-right).
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ESA/DLR/FU Berlin/MSSS

If you're wondering what the Curiosity mission spacecraft would look like if you could fly alongside it in outer space, here's an artist's concept of exactly that. It depicts the cruise phase of the craft, between launch and final approach to Mars. We see again the aeroshell, and beneath that a disc-shaped cruise stage. During the journey, the cruise stage will fire when performing trajectory correction maneuvers, to keep the spacecraft properly aligned toward its landing site on Mars. Interestingly, the spacecraft uses the stars to navigate. A star scanner on the cruise stage helps keep the spacecraft on track by monitoring its position relative to stars in our Milky Way galaxy. The cruise stage has eight thrusters that can be fired on command, powered by hydrazine fuel in two titanium tanks. It also uses a solar array for continuous power.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

As amazing as it is to think about the Curiosity rover, well, roving along the surface of Mars, it's just as fascinating to think about the mission work that will be performed. Studying the literal elements of Mars will of course be on the agenda. Here the Curiosity mission's ChemCam instrument fires a pulsed laser beam at a tiny target. It vaporizes the target material, producing a flash of light in the process. The light can show scientists which chemical elements might be in the target material. In this test, the luminous ball of plasma springs from an iron pyrite crystal being zapped with an invisible laser. The laser fires from about 10 feet (3 meters) away.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL

This instrument, the radiation assessment detector, will keep tabs on high-energy atomic and subatomic particles coming from the sun as well as from faraway supernovas and other natural sources that contain radiation. The instrument will be installed on Curiosity's deck, and the data it collects about radiation on Mars will be useful, should mankind ever visit Mars in person.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI

Here we see an artist's concept of the rover parachute system. The Curiosity mission will use the biggest parachute ever made for a planetary mission. The parachute has 80 suspension lines, measures more than 165 feet (50 meters) in length and when opened reaches a diameter of almost 51 feet (16 meters). The parachute is attached to the top of the backshell portion of the spacecraft's aeroshell. In this rendering, the heat shield portion of the aeroshell has been jettisoned and the Curiosity rover can be seen tucked in the backshell. The craft's descent stage is also inside the backshell. When the backshell falls away, a radar system on the descent stage will begin gauging the altitude and velocity.
Image Credit: NASA

In this picture, the acoustic-protection lining for the Atlas V payload fairing is seen as the fairing itself (left) is lifted into vertical position. The payload fairing contains the Curiosity mission gear, and the lining we see here is designed to protect the payload by dampening the sound generated when the rocket lifts off.
Image Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

This might look a bit like an alien getting ready to take off in his ship, but it's just a technician at NASA working on the backshell for the Curiosity mission.
Image Credit: NASA/Jim Grossmann

Highlighted in the red box, we see a neutron-shooting instrument on the Curiosity rover. Its job will be to check for water-bearing minerals in the Martian soil. It shoots high-energy neutrons into the ground, and if there is hydrogen present beneath it, the neutrons will bounce off of the hydrogen atoms. During that bounce, the neutrons will experience a tellltale decrease in energy, indicating the presence of hydrogen.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

A key piece of the launch puzzle rests in the hours before dawn at Cape Canaveral. It's the payload fairing that contains the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft. Soon it will be lifted into place atop the Atlas V rocket, and then it will be ready to blast off on its nine-month journey to Mars.
Image Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

It's fitting that we end our gallery where Curiosity will begin its work. As we learned earlier, when Curiosity lands on Mars it will be landing near a mountain inside of Gale Crater. The group in charge of the mission has dubbed it Mount Sharp (the name honors geologist Robert P. Sharp, a noted planetary scientist and teacher who was also a team member for earlier NASA Mars missions). This composite image, derived from earlier imaging data, shows the crater and the mountain within. Gale Crater is 96 miles (154 kilometers) in diameter, and scientists think it was created some 3 billion years ago following a massive impact event. The layers of geology revealed in the crater should help us learn more about each period in the planet's evolution. From the looks of it, Curiosity is in for a wild ride! Now that you've seen NASA's Curiosity Mars Rover Pictures, check out our Apollo Mission Pictures!
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ESA/DLR/FU Berlin/MSSS
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