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Mars rover "Curiosity" primed for launch to Red Planet

posted 1 May 2011, 07:01 by Mpelembe

While the US shuttle programme may be winding down, the drive to explore our solar system is as strong as ever. Mars is still the focus for many scientists and

excitement is growing about November's scheduled launch of the latest Mars rover, Curiosity, now in its final stages of testing at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

PASADENA, CALIFORNIA, UNITED STATES REUTERS - Inside the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's cleanroom, technicians are tweaking, testing and putting the finishing touches on Curiosity, scheduled for launch to the Red Planet in November.

Curiosity, officially known as the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), has been a multibillion dollar project sponsored by NASA and built by JPL in Pasadena, California.

The environment provided by the cleanroom minimises the possibility of the rover carrying material from Earth to Mars where it could contaminate data collected during those experiments.

Curiosity, although similar in appearance to its predecessors, Spirit and Opportunity, is significantly larger and offers scientists a bigger selection of tools to collect and analyze data. The biggest difference however, is in its descent and landing technology.

"We're landing Curiosity in a fairly different way that we've landed previous rovers on Mars," said deputy project scientist for MSL, Ashwin Vasavada. "We're going back to the past, where we fly spacecraft down, using rockets. But the little twist we have this time is that there's a rocket sled that will carry the rover down and set the rover down on the surface on its wheels after deploying it on a tether in the few hundred feet above the surface."

The spacecraft will descend through Mars' thin atmosphere on a parachute. During the final seconds prior to landing, it will lower the upright rover on the tether to the surface. Once on the surface, the rover will be able to roll over obstacles up to 75 centimeters (29 inches) high and travel up to 90 meters (295 feet) per hour. On average, the rover is expected to travel about 30 meters (98 feet) per hour, based on power levels, slippage, steepness of the terrain, visibility, and other variables.

"The first thing we do after we land, since landing one of the most traumatic experiences that this rover will go through, is just to ask the rover to tell us that it's all okay", said Vasavada. "So we spend the first few days on Mars, checking all the systems out, going through every subsystem, one by one, and then looking at all the instruments, make sure they survived launch and landing. And then we'll start slowly doing some science. The engineers at JPL here will really check out the rover thoroughly and then they will hand the keys over to us and we'll start exploring Mars."

The rover will carry a radioisotope power system that generates electricity from the heat of plutonium's radioactive decay. This power source gives the mission an operating lifespan on Mars' surface of a full martian year (687 Earth days) or more, while also providing significantly greater mobility and operational flexibility, enhanced science payload capability, and exploration of a much larger range of latitudes and altitudes than was possible on previous missions to Mars.

JPL says Curiosity will carry the biggest, most advanced suite of instruments for scientific research ever sent to the Martian surface. It will analyze dozens of samples scooped from the soil and drilled from rocks. An onboard laboratory will study the rocks and soils in an effort to detect chemicals that might indicate the presence of carbon forms that may once have supported life.

The rover is about the size of a small car and weighs one metric ton. Once it touches down on Mars, engineers will spend several days making sure the vehicle is functioning correctly. Once given the all-clear, the mission of exploration will begin.

"The number one thing that's new about this is the ability to take samples of rock and soil on Mars and process in analytical laboratories on board the rover itself," said Vasavada. "This is all designed to answer that question that we've been asking for decades. Is there life on Mars - but specifically for this mission, were the conditions in ancient Mars ever such that it could have supported life?"

The $2.5 billion project has been delayed by about two years because of technical delays and high costs. Vasavada says however, that the problems have been overcome.

"Right now, we're in a pretty good state. Things are really coming together. We are really headed fast towards our November launch date so it looks like things are really coming together and we'll make it this time. Two years ago, we had some issues where we missed a launch date in 2009 mostly because this rover is not only extremely complex but we're trying things we've never done before."

Testing will continue through April at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. In June, the spacecraft will be shipped to NASA Kennedy Space Center, in Florida where preparations will continue for launch. The rover is scheduled to launch between November 25 and December 18, 2011.