On Saturday, November 26, NASA is scheduled to launch the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission featuring Curiosity, the largest and most advanced rover ever sent to the Red Planet.
The Curiosity rover bristles with multiple cameras and instruments, including Goddard's Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite. By looking for evidence of water, carbon, and other important building blocks of life in the Martian soil and atmosphere, SAM will help discover whether Mars ever had the potential to support life. Curiosity will be delivered to Gale crater, a 96-mile-wide crater that contains a record of environmental changes in its sedimentary rock, in August 2012.
This artist's concept depicts the moment that NASA's Curiosity rover touches down onto the Martian surface.
The entry, descent, and landing (EDL) phase of the Mars Science Laboratory mission begins when the spacecraft reaches the Martian atmosphere, about 81 miles (131 kilometers) above the surface of the Gale crater landing area, and ends with the rover safe and sound on the surface of Mars.
Entry, descent, and landing for the Mars Science Laboratory mission will include a combination of technologies inherited from past NASA Mars missions, as well as exciting new technologies. Instead of the familiar airbag landing systems of the past Mars missions, Mars Science Laboratory will use a guided entry and a sky crane touchdown system to land the hyper-capable, massive rover.
The sheer size of the Mars Science Laboratory rover (over one ton, or 900 kilograms) would preclude it from taking advantage of an airbag-assisted landing. Instead, the Mars Science Laboratory will use the sky crane touchdown system, which will be capable of delivering a much larger rover onto the surface. It will place the rover on its wheels, ready to begin its mission after thorough post-landing checkouts.
The new entry, descent and landing architecture, with its use of guided entry, will allow for more precision. Where the Mars Exploration Rovers could have landed anywhere within their respective 93-mile by 12-mile (150 by 20 kilometer) landing ellipses, Mars Science Laboratory will land within a 12-mile (20-kilometer) ellipse! This high-precision delivery will open up more areas of Mars for exploration and potentially allow scientists to roam "virtually" where they have not been able to before.
In the depicted scene, Curiosity is touching down onto the surface, suspended on a bridle beneath the spacecraft's descent stage as that stage controls the rate of descent with four of its eight throttle-controllable rocket engines. The rover is connected to the descent stage by three nylon tethers and by an umbilical providing a power and communication connection. When touchdown is detected, the bridle will be cut at the rover end, and the descent stage flies off to stay clear of the landing site. The Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft is being prepared for launch during Nov. 25 to Dec. 18, 2011. Landing on Mars is in early August 2012. In a prime mission lasting one Martian year (nearly two Earth years) researchers will use the rover's tools to study whether the landing region has had environmental conditions favorable for supporting microbial life and for preserving clues about whether life existed.
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, Calif., manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Washington.
More information about Curiosity is at mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/ .
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center enables NASA’s mission through four scientific endeavors: Earth Science, Heliophysics, Solar System Exploration, and Astrophysics. Goddard plays a leading role in NASA’s accomplishments by contributing compelling scientific know