Mars rover launched

The Mars Science Lab was launched a week ago, and is scheduled to land in the Gale Crater of Mars during August of next year.   The object is to place a one-ton vehicle, or rover, called “Curiosity” on the surface to move about for about 690 days. Its average speed will be about 30 meters per hour. Among its other tasks, Curiosity will try to answer the long-standing but unresolved question about whether Mars harbors life.

The Wikipedia page gives a ton of useful information, and this cool 5.5 minute animation shows how Curiosity will land and deploy:

The landing is an extremely complicated multi-step process. Check out the rock sampler at 4:13. I’m not sure which of the many experiments envisioned is shown at the end; perhaps an informed reader will tell us.

Isn’t it amazing what our species has been able to do? Everything involved in this mission to Mars was crafted from the substance and atmosphere of Earth, transformed through the mentation of a big-brained primate.

Professor Martin Brasier—a well-known paleobiologist at Oxford—and his son Alex were invited to the launch and took these two photos, which I reproduce with their permission:

h/t: Rixaeton

30 Comments

  1. Posted December 3, 2011 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    Very cool! Let’s hope it fairs better than the Russian probe…

    /@

    • rmw
      Posted December 3, 2011 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

      Or the Mars Climate Orbiter…

  2. Mary
    Posted December 3, 2011 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    “Isn’t it amazing what our species has been able to do?”

    A lot more awe inspiring than a burning bush

  3. Posted December 3, 2011 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    It is also amazing what a bunch of co-operative bacteria can do with a few billion years.

    This is what has puzzled me about the “747 built by a tornado in a junkyard” thing. If the whole Earth is considered a junkyard, with solar and geothermal power circulating matter for four billion years as the tornado, then yes, evolution can produce a 747, or even a Mars rover.

    • Posted December 4, 2011 at 9:02 am | Permalink

      This is what has puzzled me about the “747 built by a tornado in a junkyard” thing. If the whole Earth is considered a junkyard, with solar and geothermal power circulating matter for four billion years as the tornado, then yes, evolution can produce a 747, or even a Mars rover.

      In fairness, I think that somewhat begs the question of evolution. If humans were created by a designer, than it is not a problem that they then create 747s: Still, nothing with the complexity of a 747 arises without some ultimate designer.

      I suppose it does elide the way in which the original 747-in-a-junkyard argument is also a form of question-begging, though. But it was always a mere argument from personal incredulity anyway, and so not valid. Personally, I don’t understand how an educated adult could believe in a benevolent personal God — I am personally incredulous that such individuals might exist — but this would be a rather poor argument that theists aren’t real :)

  4. Florian
    Posted December 3, 2011 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    I’ve watched that video a few times before. It still excites me. Anyone know what the little bits are the pop off at 1:08 and 1:48? I’m guessing latches that hold the shield on. I just like how such a small thing was included in the animation. And i know some will quibble that there is no sound in space but i think the sound effects are really great.

    • Posted December 3, 2011 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

      Looking at the landing stages diagram http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:20090428MSLEntry1.jpg, the first pop-off at 1:08 is the “cruise balance mass jettison.” I don’t have details, but at a guess because the payload is not symmetrical and the cruse phase requires the craft to spin, those are the extra weights used to balance the craft, in the same way car wheels have lead weights attached to the rims.

      I think you are right about the heat shield bolts at 1:48.

      Did anyone else have a “what tha..?” expression on their face at 2:10 :)

      • Posted December 3, 2011 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

        Actually, reading the Wiki page that Jerry linked to, the things popped off at 1:48 could also be ballast mass used to trim the attitude of the craft as it passes through the atmosphere. This is a spacecraft that has to fly, deploy and land all on software alone. The precise landing point has to be decided by the software based on what it sees.

        • Torbjorn Larsson, OM
          Posted December 3, 2011 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

          It is the attitude rockets you can see working during entry and ballistic flight, combined with a deepened understanding of Mars atmosphere no doubt, that does the heavy lifting of shrinking the earlier large landing ellipses (likely landing areas).

          Those are interesting rockets, since I am told you can’t reliably ignite them in a supersonic air stream (yet). They are ignited and works behind the shock front slowing the air stream to subsonic speeds around and behind the craft.

          And SpaceX has, perhaps wisely, put similar engines on their Dragon capsules. The difference with them pointing down on the sides as opposed to back at the end of the craft as here should mean little for ignition and operation. We will see.

      • Florian
        Posted December 3, 2011 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

        Thanks Rixaeton.

    • Torbjorn Larsson, OM
      Posted December 3, 2011 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

      The weights are used to change the descent stage attitude by changing the center of mass. The first weight jettison would be between entry orbit and atmosphere ballistic flight, then between flight and chute attitude I think.

      The general EDL (Entry, Descent, Landing) procedure were developed for the Viking landers. Especially the supersonic chutes were developed at cost, because they needed many rocket flights to get right. Now they now how to scale and check them, which is enough.

      [Only the landing procedure differ. Albeit the new sky crane is almost a throwback to the Viking rocket engine landing.]

      I guess the weights were introduced then. It is a cheap and robust way to change attitude.

  5. Torbjorn Larsson, OM
    Posted December 3, 2011 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    Curiosity will try to answer the long-standing but unresolved question about whether Mars harbors life.

    Actually not a search for life. Curiosity will deepen the quest for Mars habitability, a search for ability to support life, now or then. It will follow up the successful search for water with a search for organics:

    “Curiosity is ‘Seeking the Signs of Life’, but is not a life detection mission.” [Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program.]

    If there is life in the ground, Curiosity may not find it. Instead it, together with its companion orbiter Maven which arrives at 2013, will hopefully plow the ground (literary) for follow up life detection and/or sample return missions.

    I think NASA will have to hammer this distinction to the media in the coming months, so that there aren’t any undue expectations that will likely not be fulfilled. The backlash form that will be problematic as always.

    As for the particular instrument, it is hard to tell from the video. It could be the CheMin, an X-ray diffraction instrument, or perhaps they mean to depict alpha particle beams as in the APXS (Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer).

  6. Julien Rousseau
    Posted December 3, 2011 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

    Excellent. let’s hope it lasts as long as the previous rovers.

    http://xkcd.com/695/

  7. Posted December 3, 2011 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

    Click the link to see very detailed information about the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) Suite of instruments on board the Curiosity rover. It’s…

    designed to address the present and past habitability of Mars by exploring molecular and elemental chemistry relevant to life. SAM addresses carbon chemistry through a search for organic compounds, the chemical state of light elements other than carbon, and isotopic tracers of planetary change.

    SAM is a suite of three instruments:
    Quadrupole Mass Spectrometer (QMS)
    Gas Chromatograph (GC)
    Tunable Laser Spectrometer (TLS)

    The QMS and the GC can operate together in a GCMS mode for separation (GC) and definitive identification (QMS) of organic compounds. The TLS obtains precise isotope ratios for C and O in carbon dioxide and measures trace levels of methane and its carbon isotope

    However there’s much more in the link.

  8. Adam M.
    Posted December 3, 2011 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

    With parts supplied by the US, Canada, France, Germany, Russia, Spain, and Finland, it’s heartening to see the degree of international cooperation in the project.

    Now if only we could redirect spending from war to science, we could afford to launch about 300 of these missions per year (or fund great advancements in a wide range of fields).

  9. murci3lag0
    Posted December 3, 2011 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

    The “laser eye” of the rover at 4:08 is the ChemCam instrument. It was designed and bulit in my lab: Institut de Recherche en Astrophysique et Planétologie, here in Toulouse, France. Check out our web site and our Facebook page for more info! Or follow us on twitter @IRAP_France.

  10. Marella
    Posted December 4, 2011 at 1:27 am | Permalink

    Wow that was amazing, what an elaborate method of landing it. I suppose they know what they’re doing but it seems extremely complicated. Must be so exciting to work on a project like this.

  11. Posted December 4, 2011 at 2:06 am | Permalink

    Shouldn’t it be obvious that this kind of thing, where it doesn’t need elaborate life-support, doesn’t have to be coddled against radiation, and above all, doesn’t have to come back (Sorry, Rover) – let alone come back alive – is far more practicable and effective in its mission than trying to send humans?

  12. Mettyx
    Posted December 4, 2011 at 3:00 am | Permalink

    Wow, I just watched this and am very worried. So many thing could go wrong and probably will.

    What a blow it would be if it all fails.

  13. Draken
    Posted December 4, 2011 at 4:20 am | Permalink

    Am I the only one with a pessimistic outlook on this? It’s a hideously complicated landing procedure and if it fails, it will be used by politicians to drive the last nail in NASA’s coffin. Their funding will then finally be released to compensate for any potential cuts that might threaten the defense budget.

    • Keith
      Posted December 4, 2011 at 9:53 am | Permalink

      Yeah, that entry and landing will be a real nail-biter for everyone. I was surprised at the engineering complexity, too, but see from the wiki page that the device is the size of a mini-cooper and weighs a ton. I can only assume that at this size, the air bag tricks from the previous rovers won’t do.

    • Notagod
      Posted December 4, 2011 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

      NASA’s budget (17 billion) would get lost in the rounding error of the defense budget (1 trillion).

  14. Aidan Karley
    Posted December 4, 2011 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

    Returning to the Phobos-Grunt mission, briefly, it seems that the ESA have ceased their active search for signals from the mission. They haven’t completely given up, and remain willing to help the Russians in any way they can think of. But it sounds as if the ESA are, essentially, out of ideas. Which doesn’t sound good for Phobos-Grunt.

    On a lighter note : I was reading Martin Brasier’s “Darwin’s Lost World: The Hidden History of Life on Earth” (Publisher: OUP Oxford; ISBN-10: 0199548978) earlier this year on the Grand Banks, and a cracking good read it is too. Clearly Prof Brasier is a “geologist’s geologist”.
    I look forward to his next book “Secret Chambers: The inside story of cells and complex life” (Publisher: OUP Oxford ;
    ISBN-10: 0199644004), and it’s on my wish-list.


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