The latest Mars rover Curiosity departed from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station last November and landed safely on the surface of the Red Planet on Aug. 5, 2012 making it the fourth American rover successfully sent to Mars.
Curiosity is the first rover to be a part of the Mars Science Laboratory mission and is fully equipped with a science lab. The mission of the MINI Cooper sized six-wheeled rover is to determine whether there is evidence of microbial life ever existing on Mars. The Gale Crater was chosen as the landing site due to its multiple layers of rock, which provide billions of years worth of history to investigate.
Ryan Anderson, an engineer with MSL, explained that the crater was chosen in part due to landing concerns.
“It has the best of both worlds: it is a very deep hole in the ground near the equator, which means there is lots of atmosphere to help slow the descent, and it is warm enough to operate year-round,” Anderson said.
Curiosity’s risky landing, known as the “7 Minutes of Terror,” was comprised of entry, descent and landing (EDL). Instead of using airbags as in previous rovers, a supersonic parachute capable of withstanding 65,000 pounds of force and only weighing 100 pounds was designed.
Steve Sell, deputy operations lead for EDL, explained that a sky crane was used in the landing because it could accommodate for varied terrain and prevent dust clouds from damaging the intricate instruments on the rover.
With one-way transit time from Mars to Earth being 13.8 minutes, NASA developed an advanced telecommunication system to relay messages. In total, three antennas are utilized: one for communication with the Mars orbiters using an ultra- high frequency band, and two for communications directly with NASA’s Deep Space network antennas on Earth. NASA sends specific instructions to Curiosity every Martian morning, factoring in the 40 minute time difference between the planets and the 154 million miles the signal must travel.
Unlike past rovers Spirit and Opportunity, Curiosity is not powered by solar panels, but by a multi-mission radioisotope thermoelectric generator (MMRGT). Essentially, this is a battery that converts the heat generated by plutonium into electricity. Dust buildup would cover up the solar panels on Opportunity and Spirit, rendering them powerless, so the MMRTG has proved to be much more reliable.
Curiosity’simmensemassofnearly2,000pounds,including 165 pounds of 10 lab instruments, is particularly impressive. In comparison, Spirit and Opportunity each carried 5 lab instruments, with a total weight of 11 pounds.
One of the most innovative aspects of the rover is the laser beam that can vaporize rocks and observe the resulting spark to reveal information about is chemical elements. Although the wet environment in which the infamous Martian clay minerals first formed has been gone for at least 3 billion years, Curiosity will be able to investigate the presence of water by checking for traces of it still bound into the mineral structure of rocks. The prime mission will last one Martian year, or roughly 23 months in Earth time.