When Discovery News Met Mars Rover 'Curiosity'
April 4, 2011 --
I've fallen in love with a robot. But this wouldn't be the first time. When NASA's lunchbox-sized Sojourner rover made its first, timid steps on Martian soil in 1997, I was in love. When NASA's twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity bounced across the Red Planet's terrain and sent that heart-stopping signal that they were "OK" in 2004, I was in love. Most recently, with the help of social media and my addiction to Twitter, I was besotted with the Mars Phoenix lander when it touched red dirt in 2008. But today, I met NASA's biggest wheeled robot yet: the Mars Science Laboratory, or simply, "Curiosity." And yes, even before she's left the clean room where she was assembled, I'm in love with that six-wheeled, laser-toting, nuclear-powered machine. In a special media event held at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) near Pasadena, Calif., on April 4, I had the exciting opportunity to see Curiosity with my own eyes before she's shipped to Cape Canaveral, Fla., for launch later this year. Here are a few photos from this memorable event.
Keeping it Clean
On arriving at JPL, I collected my visitor's badge and was escorted to the Spacecraft Assembly Facility with freelance photographer Joseph Linaschke who was covering the event for BoingBoing. Renowned Peter Theisinger, Project Manager of the Mars Science Laboratory, was there to meet us in the gallery overlooking the "clean room" where Curiosity awaited below. Theisinger enlightened us on a few of the finer points of the mission while we watched an animated movie of the reentry, descent and landing of this ingenious robot. After being escorted downstairs, we went into a small changing room where all of us media folks had to change into our "bunny suits" before entering the clean room. One of the guys helping us to "suit up," obviously used to visitors getting excited about dressing up, pointed to a mirror and said, "You can get a photo there if you like?" Why not?
There She Is
The first thing that struck me about the rover was her size. I often hear scientists comparing Curiosity to the size of a Mini Cooper car, but that didn't prepare me for what I saw. Hoisted atop a metal frame, with all six wheels off the ground, I was amazed by the suite of experimental equipment that had been packed on board. Gold cables snaked over the rover, the prominent mast with cameras attached towered above, the robotic arm and various experiments jutted out of Curiosity's body. If you compare the completed rover with previous artist's impressions, you'd notice a big difference. This is one tough-looking robot. A special thanks to Joseph Linaschke for taking my picture!
Curiosity Has a Face
One instrument that has been receiving a lot of attention is the ChemCam, a suite of remote sensing instruments. The large circle shown in the "head" of Curiosity (pictured here) is the first "laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy system" to be used on Mars. For an explanation for how this worked, I asked rover support engineer Matt Horner. "The ChemCam, the large window up there [on the mast], has a laser that can actually vaporize the surface of a rock and look at the light reflected to tell us what that rock is made of," Horner told me. "It has a range of up to 30 feet." Horner also described how the invisible infrared laser made sparks on the surface of sample targets they fired the laser at during tests, which I thought sounded like fun.
If you thought the rims on your car are impressive, take a look at Curiosity's bling. Constructed from aircraft-grade aluminum, the rover sports six of these durable, lightweight, 20 inch (50 centimeter) wheels. They are twice the diameter of Spirit and Opportunity's wheels and will help Curiosity roll over obstacles up to 30" (75 cm) high.
Although it was hard to know who was who in the clean room, I bumped into Emily Lakdawalla, Planetary Society blogger who was in a similar state of excitement as I was. Planetary Society Executive Director Bill Nye (The Science Guy) was also there quizzing mission scientists.
To protect it in space during transit to Mars and entry through the Martian atmosphere, Curiosity will be encased inside an Apollo-sized capsule consisting of an aeroshell and heat shield. The back shell was on display in the clean room and Jennifer Knight, cruise stage and aeroshell integration lead, was there to answer questions. "It's very similar in structure [to the Mars Exploration Rovers' (MER) aeroshell]," Knight told me. "It's a honeycombe composite structure. The white that you see here is a thermal protection material, the same material we used on MER and very similar to space shuttle tiles to protect it as it enters the atmosphere." The aeroshell is approximately 15 feet (4.6 meters) in diameter, double the size of ones used to deliver Spirit and Opportunity to Mars.
The Sky Crane
To ensure a gentle touchdown on the Martian surface, Curiosity will use a rocket-powered "sky crane" to control the final stage of descent. After the back shell has been ejected, the sky crane will lower the rover via a system of cables and then fire up the rockets. Once the rover touches down, the sky crane will release Curiosity and then fly away. But what happens to the sky crane assembly then? "The descent stage has to fly away and maintain a certain distance from the rover so when it does crash on the ground, it's not going to cause damage [to the rover] by anything that's kicked up," said Mark Yerdon, descent stage integration lead. "It's controlled in the sense that it's controlled to fly away, to throttle up and move away from the rover. But it's not going to make a nice soft touchdown, like a helicopter." Basically, after delivering Curiosity, the only thing the sky crane has to do is to ditch, at a safe distance, into the Martian dirt.
The Ideal Mission
After visiting Curiosity, I wasn't only wowed by the technology and the groundbreaking science this robot will do on the Martian surface. I was also humbled by the strong personal connection between the rover and everyone that has worked on her. Also, confidence in this mission is high, especially when following in the footsteps of the awesome Mars Expedition Rovers, one of which is still trundling across the Martian surface 7 years on. So, ideally, how is Curiosity expected to perform? Will she exceed our wildest expectations like her predecessors? Matt Horner told me that so long as everything goes to plan, he'll be happy. His ideal mission would be "a nice successful landing, everything waking up nicely and then completing our primary mission 687 day mission that we spec'd out, hopefully finding some pretty interesting things along the way." I'll be following the progress of Curiosity very closely, and will look forward to launch around Thanksgiving later this year. Special thank you to Guy Webster for inviting Discovery News to JPL.