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Mars Science Laboratory PDF Print E-mail
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Curiosity Prepares For Launch

Mars Science Laboratory is on track for Thanksgiving Day blastoff

NASA's newest Mars rover is nearing launch, being prepared at Kennedy Space Center for its eight-month journey to the Red Planet. For the last time before launch, we take a look at the Curiosity rover, its legs and instruments fully deployed as it undergoes final testing.

The 10,000 pound Mars Science Laboratory consists of Curiosity, its earoshell and heat shield and a cruise stage that will guide the $2.5 billion laboratory to Mars after leaving Earth.

Liftoff of MSL is currently scheduled during a launch window that runs from November 25, Thanksgiving Day, to December 18. The spacecraft will blast off toward Mars onboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Technicians will spend the next three months packing the spacecraft inside its aeroshell and encapsulating the whole assembly inside the Atlas rocket's payload fairing before being hauled to the launch pad in early November.

"We're still in the process of finishing up the final integration and assembly of the spacecraft," said Flight Systems Manager Matthew Wallace.

Curiosity should arriave at Mars in August 2012.

Curiosity is about twice as long (about 3 meters or 10 feet) and five times as heavy as NASA’s twin Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, launched in 2003. It inherited many design elements from them, including six-wheel drive, a rocker-bogie suspension system and cameras mounted on a mast to help the mission’s team on Earth select exploration targets and driving routes. Unlike earlier rovers, Curiosity carries equipment to gather samples of rocks and soil, process them and distribute them to onboard test chambers inside analytical instruments.

A suite of instruments named Sample Analysis at Mars will analyze samples of material collected and delivered by the rover’s arm, plus atmospheric samples. It includes a gas chromatograph, a mass spectrometer, and a tunable laser spectrometer with combined capabilities to identify a wide range of organic (carbon-containing) compounds and determine the ratios of different isotopes of key elements. Isotope ratios are clues to understanding the history of Mars’ atmosphere and water. The principal investigator is Paul Mahaffy of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.

An X-ray diffraction and fluorescence instrument called CheMin will also examine samples gathered by the robotic arm. It is designed to identify and quantify the minerals in rocks and soils, and to measure bulk composition. The principal investigator is David Blake of NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.

Mounted on the arm, the Mars Hand Lens Imager will take extreme close-up pictures of rocks, soil and, if present, ice, revealing details smaller than the width of a human hair. It will also be able to focus on hard-to-reach objects more than an arm’s length away. The principal investigator is Kenneth Edgett of Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego.

Also on the arm, the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer for Mars Science Laboratory will determine the relative abundances of different elements in rocks and soils. Dr. Ralf Gellert of the University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada, is principal investigator for this instrument, which will be provided by the Canadian Space Agency.

The Mars Science Laboratory Mast Camera, mounted at about human-eye height, will image the rover’s surroundings in high-resolution stereo and color, with the capability to take and store high-definition video sequences. It will also be used for viewing materials collected or treated by the arm. The principal investigator is Michael Malin of Malin Space Science Systems.

An instrument named ChemCam will use laser pulses to vaporize thin layers of material from Martian rocks or soil targets up to 7 meters (23 feet) away. It will include both a spectrometer to identify the types of atoms excited by the beam, and a telescope to capture detailed images of the area illuminated by the beam. The laser and telescope sit on the rover’s mast and share with the Mast Camera the role of informing researchers’ choices about which objects in the area make the best targets for approaching to examine with other instruments. Roger Wiens of Los Alamos National Laboratory, Los Alamos, N.M., is the principal investigator.

The rover's Radiation Assessment Detector will characterize the radiation environment at the surface of Mars. This information is necessary for planning human exploration of Mars and is relevant to assessing the planet’s ability to harbor life. The principal investigator is Donald Hassler of Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colo.