Image Description: Models of the three generations of Martian Rovers. The small one in front is Sojourner, part of the Mars Pathfinder Project, this rover landed in 1997. On the left is the Spirit/Opportunity rover, both landed in 2004 (Opportunity is still functioning and performing scientific exploration of the surface). The rover on the right is Curiosity. The engineers are Matt Robinson (left) and Wesley Kuykendall (right).

The Curiosity rover landed on Mars on August 6, 2012 with much cheering in the NASA control room. The primary missions for this 2.5 billion dollar project are to determine whether or not the Red Planet is capable or could have ever supported microbial life, to study its climate and geology, and to help plan for a future human mission to our closest neighbor. It's already completed it's first mission and determined that Mars was probably capable of supporting microbial life in the past.

The rover itself is massive; weighing in at 1-ton, it is five times as heavy and nearly twice as long as Spirit and Opportunity, making Curiosity comparable to the size of a small car. The newest addition to the Martian rover family also has some awesome new features including:

The ability to capture high definition video (720p color video at six frames per second), before this, scientists created time-laps footage with images taken every 45-seconds.

The Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) is a camera capable of taking microscopic images of anything scientists find interesting.

Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) is an instrument suite containing a Quadruple Mass Spectrometer, a Gas Chromatograph, and a Tunable Laser Spectrometer. Basically, it is an on board lab capable of analyzing Martian samples with incredible accuracy in addition to giving scientists more types of information about the Martian environment.

Curiosity also has a drill attached to its arm; this is very exciting because, before Curiosity, scientists were unable to take samples from the interior of rocks during previous missions.

Image Credit: NASA

Curiosity also has a laser. In addition to being completely awesome, the laser does serve a scientific function. As geeks from our planet take turns firing the laser at unsuspecting Martian rocks, Curiosity analyzes the vaporized bits of rock to learn more about their composition from a distance. This lets scientists know whether to proceed to a certain region for further investigation.

The Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN) is basically a device that searches for underground water by firing neutrons into the ground and measuring the time it takes them to bounce back (hydrogen atoms slow down neutrons which can be measured by DAN). DAN can find water concentrations as low as 0.1 percent at depths of up to 6 feet.

Curiosity has several other scientific instruments on board, but the ones I mentioned are some of the coolest new additions to the rover family.

One of Curiosity's coolest features was actually how it landed, affectionately called the "Seven Minutes of Terror." Although it sounds like a ride at Disney World, if anything had gone wrong during the seven minutes of terror, the Curiosity mission would have ended before it began. It takes seven minutes for the rover to go from the top of the Martian atmosphere to touchdown. This process was entirely automated and used nearly 500,000 lines of code, all having to function with a zero margin for error. The reason such a delicate process is controlled by computers instead of people is because it takes radio signals about 14 minutes (each way) to travel from Mars to Earth (making any given command a 28 minute round trip). This means by the time scientists on Earth received the signal that Curiosity had entered the atmosphere, the rover's fate was already determined; it was either safely on the surface awaiting instruction, or it crashed during the decent.

The heat shield being ejected from the decent vehicle during Curiosity's landing. Image Credit: NASA

Using a modern day rendition of the algorithms used in the landing of the Apollo Command Modules, Curiosity entered the Martian atmosphere and free-fell to the surface. Even though the atmosphere on Mars is much thinner than Earth’s, the rover still used a heat shield to prevent it from burning up.

After the spacecraft slowed to about 1,000 miles per hour, it deployed the largest and strongest supersonic parachute ever constructed in the continued effort to slow the decent vehicle. Even though the parachute was huge, and because the Martian atmosphere is as thin as it is, the spacecraft would only slow to about 200 miles per hour. From here, the sky crane and the rover disconnect from the parachute and rockets were used for the final part of the landing sequence.

The sky crane couldn't get too close to the ground because its rockets would have kicked up too much dust, which could have potentially damaged the rover. Instead, the sky crane gently lowered the rover to the ground from an altitude of about 20 meters. After the rover was safely on the surface, the sky crane disconnected and flew to a safe distance before it ran out of fuel and crashed into the surface.

In addition to all of that, the rover needed to land inside the Gale crater, at some very specific coordinates, making this the most precise landing ever attempted on the Red Planet – and the entire process is automated. Needless to say, this landing went off flawlessly. NASA plans to use the same type of landing sequence for the next generation of rover it sends to the Red Planet.

Curiosity has already spent one Martian year on the surface and has begun it's extended mission. It has done a lot to help develop our understanding of Mars and its climate. If Curiosity is anything like Opportunity, it'll keep roving away for many years to come.

Just an awesome picture of Mars showing what Curiosity's high definition camera can do.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Curiosity

 


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