This week, Boing Boing was invited to visit NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for the first and only opportunity for media to enter the Pasadena, CA clean room where NASA's next Mars rover, Curiosity, and other components of the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft have been built for launch in late 2011 from Florida.
Shipment from the clean room to Florida will begin next month. Curiosity rover recently completed tests under simulated space and Mars-surface environmental conditions in another building and is back in the Spacecraft Assembly Facility at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for other tests. Spacecraft assembly and testing specialists showed Boing Boing the rover and the other spacecraft components, including the descent stage "sky crane."
Visitors look into the clean room at JPL that currently holds nearly all of the MSL flight hardware, including the rover, descent stage, cruise stage, and aeroshell. These components were assembled in the clean room and continue to undergo testing there.
Close-up of the clean room floor showing the descent stage (left), cruise stage (middle), and aeroshell (right). The technicians all wear special uniforms ("bunny suits") to both protect the spacecraft components from contamination and avoid electrostatic discharges that would harm spacecraft electronics.
Above: MSL's 4.5-meter aeroshell that encapsulates the rover and descent stage during cruise to Mars and its entry into Mars' upper atmosphere. The upper cage will hold the parachute.
The Curiosity rover on a support stand. Each wheel is 50 cm in diameter. The 2-meter robot arm and instrument turret are visible on the left.
Rear of the Curiosity rover showing the radioisotope thermoelectric generator that supplies electrical power and heat to the rover.
The Curiosity rover, showing the location of the radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG) on the rear of the rover that provides both electrical power and heat to enable the rover's operation and survival on Mars. Pipes visible along the sides of the RTG use fluid to transport heat into the rover body.
Curiosity's wheels. Each wheel is made from black-anodized aluminum and is 50 cm in diameter. Curiosity's wheels and suspension system are designed to take the impact of landing and to allow the rover to traverse sandy and rocky terrain.
Close-up of one of the rover's six wheels. The spokes help contain the impact of landing and driving over rough terrain.
Curiosity's deck, showing the rover's suspension system (black y-shaped thing) mast (left), high-gain antenna (right), and UHF antenna (gray unit in the far left). At the top of the mast is a telescope used to focus a laser on rocks and soils up to 20 feet away for chemical analysis. Just below the telescope, the medium-angle and telephoto lenses of the rover's primary science cameras are visible as two squares of different sizes. On the outsides of those are the rover's four navigation cameras. Only two are used at any time, with the other two serving as spares.
Close-up of MSL's descent stage. The orange spheres are propellant tanks. The black-colored unit measures accelerations with high precision in order to control the descent.
COMMENTARY: The Curiosity is the fourth in the series of robotic Mars exploration rovers (MER), and is designed very differently than first three: Pathfinder, Spirit and Opportunity, which were a lot smaller and equipped with their characteristic solar panel wings on the top.
- Pathfinder landed on Mars on July 4, 1997. Communications was lost on September 27, 1997.
- Spirit landed successfully on Mars on January 4, 2004. Nearly 6 years after the original mission limit, Spirit had covered a total distance of 7.73 km (4.80 miles) but its wheels were trapped in sand. Around January 26, 2010, NASA admitted defeat in its efforts to free the rover and stated that it would now function as a stationary science platform. Since March 22, 2010 there has been no communication from the rover, though there is still hope that it may resume communication because the opportunity for energy generation will increase in its current location until mid-March 2011.
- Opportunity landed successfully on January 25, 2004. Rover was still operating as of January 2011, surpassing the previous record for longevity of a surface mission to Mars on May 20.
Major dimensions for the previous MER rovers are:
- Height: 1.5m / 4.9 ft (inc. deployed PMA)
- Width: 2.3m / 7.5 ft
- Length: 1.6m / 5,2 ft
- Mass: 174 kg / 384 lb : However, this may not be quite correct. According to Design and Verification of the MER Primary Payload, the total mass of the Mars Exploration Rover is 180.1 kg. Of this, the mass of the Rover WEB is 145.6 kg, and the mass of Rover mobility components (e.g. wheels, rocker-bogie suspension) is 34.5 kg.
Curiosity is comparable in size to a small car – a hull 4 m, weight 930 kg wtih equipment. Previous MER rovers (Pathfinder, Spirit and Opportunity) had a much more modest dimensions (above).
The key elements of the Mars Science Laboratory's Curiosity Mars rover are biological and technological:
- Search for evidence of life on Mars.
- Demonstrate the ability to land a very large, heavy rover to the surface of Mars (which could be used for a future Mars Sample Return mission that would collect rocks and soils and send them back to Earth for laboratory analysis)
- Demonstrate the ability to land more precisely in a 20-kilometer (12.4-mile) landing circle
- Demonstrate long-range mobility on the surface of the red planet (5-20 kilometers or about 3 to 12 miles) for the collection of more diverse samples and studies.
- Curiosity, will use a laser that will be used to zap rocks and patches of soil with enough power to generate a flash revealing each target's atomic ingredients.
These are elements that will become increasingly important as we approach sending manned missions the Phobos, and later to Mars itself. Visit the Mars Science Laboratory website and watch the goings-on in the MSL clean room.
Here's a nice (but brief) video of NASA's JPL crew as they work on assembling Curiosity:
Here a Curiosity going through its first test drive at NASA's JPL:
Here is an excellent YouTube video showing the upper stage of the launch rock carrying Curiosity as it approaches Mars, the rover aeroshell descending through the Mars atmosphere, the parachute opening to reduce the speed of the aeroshell, separation of the Curiosity rover from the aeroshell, the "soft" landing of Curiosity on the surface of Mars, and Curiosity coming to life to do its job of exploring the surface of Mars. That's quite impressive.
Joseph Linaschke took all the photo's. Joseph is a photographic storyteller and educator, and runs ApertureExpert.com, a leading site for Apple Aperture users. He has traveled the world representing various technologies and companies on stage, including MetaCreations, Wacom, Corel, and Apple, where he was part of the marketing team for Aperture and produced and shot several productions for iLife, Aperture and Final Cut Studio.
You can purchase prints of any images in Joseph's JPL Mars Curiosity Rover photo gallery here.