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Weekly space gallery for January 18, 2014

WELCOME TO THE FIRST of our weekly collections of the best astronomy and space exploration images taken by observatories around the world and in space. Each week we’ll bring you a selection of our favourite recent images – if you like them (and we hope you do), please share them with your friends. And don’t forget you can elect to have this and other stories emailed direct to your inbox, just by signing up to our free email service – see the Subscribe box in the column at right.

So, let’s get started on this week’s images.

1. The Orion Nebula

Orion Nebula

An infrared view of the Orion Nebula.

One of the most famous sights in the sky, the Orion Nebula is a huge cloud of gas and dust about 1,500 light-years from Earth. Astronomers call it a ‘stellar nursery’ because many stars have been born, or are in the process of being born, out of all that gas and dust. See all the tiny red dots? Those are newly born stars. This false-colour image was taken by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, which views the universe at infrared wavelengths. Courtesy NASA.

2. The Coma Cluster

Coma Cluster

The Coma Cluster of galaxies.

Galaxies tend to clump together in groups, or clusters. Some clusters comprise only a handful of galaxies, others have more than a thousand. The Coma Cluster – so-called because it is seen in the direction of the constellation Coma Berenices, which means ‘Berenice’s Hair’ (named after an ancient Egyptian queen) – is located about 350 million light years from Earth. Most of its 1,000-plus galaxies are elliptical (one of the two main galaxy shapes, the other being spiral). Pretty much all of the dots and blobs of light you can see in this Hubble Space Telescope image are galaxies; the three main ones are called IC 4041 (left), IC 4042 (middle) and GP 236 (right). The Coma Cluster is itself part of a larger grouping that also contains the Leo Cluster, and is called the Coma Supercluster. Courtesy ESA / Hubble & NASA; D. Carter (LJMU).

3. The Topsy Turvy galaxy

Topsy Turvy galaxy

The Topsy Turvy galaxy, with X-ray emission from regions surrounding two black holes shown in purple.

The Topsy Turvy galaxy (also known by its catalogue number, NGC 1313) is located about 13 million light years from Earth. Hidden within it are two black holes, whose presence is given away – where the purple patches are (false colour) – by energetic X-rays coming from gas being siphoned from companion stars. The X-ray data comes from NASA’s NuSTAR space telescope, while the background image is from the Digitised Sky Survey (made from pictures taken by ground-based telescopes). Courtesy NASA / JPL-Caltech / IRAP.

4. Planets in the dust

Dust ring around the star HD 142527

Dust around the star HD 142527 could be giving birth to planets.

Japanese astronomers have been studying a star called HD 142527, about 450 light years Earth. HD 142527 is a young star, surrounded by a huge, slightly lop-sided ring of gas and dust. The astronomers say that a dense spot in the ring is where planets could be forming. (Due to the wavelength used, the star is not visible in this image.) Courtesy ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), NAOJ.

5. The Tarantula Nebula

The Tarantula Nebula

The Tarantula Nebula

The Tarantula Nebula is a huge cloud of gas and dust in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a neighbouring galaxy to our Milky Way. This Hubble Space Telescope infrared view shows cloudy whisps and many thousands of sparkling stars. Just to the left of centre is a tight group of stars known as R136. In early photographs, R136 seemed to be a single, giant star, and no one could work out how a star could grow to be so big. But eventually better imaging revealed it to be a cluster of stars – so many and so bright, that the light the emit is the main reason why the Tarantula’s gas and dust is all lit up. Courtesy NASA, ESA, E. Sabbi (STScI).

6. Looking down on Venus

South pole view of Venus.

The view looking down on Venus’ southern polar regions.

This black and white image of Venus was taken by the European Space Agency’s Venus Express spacecraft, which has been orbiting the planet since April 2006. The viewpoint is looking down on the south pole from an altitude of 50,000 kilometres. Venus is perpetually covered by thick clouds, but Venus Express’ instruments can pick out bands within those clouds, which are being blown by the prevailing winds from east to west (the opposite to winds here on Earth). The small black blobs are not real; they are artefacts of the imaging equipment. Courtesy ESA / MPS / DLR / IDA.

7. Rima Marius

Rima Marius

Rima Marius stretches 280 kilometres across the Moon.

Rima Marius is a lunar ‘rille’ or channel. Such channels are thought to form when a tunnel through which lava once flowed, collapses in on itself. Rima Marius is 280 kilometres long, winding its way across a flat plain known as the Oceanus Procellarum, or Ocean of Storms. This image was taken by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft. Courtesy NASA / GSFC / Arizona State University.

8. Tracks on Mars

Orbital shot showing tracks left by the Curiosity rover

An orbital shot showing tracks left by the Curiosity rover on Mars.

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter snapped this image of the martian surface on December 11, 2013. It clearly shows the tracks left by the Curiosity rover as it slowly makes it way across the floor of Gale Crater (the rover itself is out of frame). The rover has six wheels, three on each side; the distance between left and right wheels is about 3 metres. See if you can follow the tracks all the way from top right to bottom left. Courtesy NASA / JPL-Caltech / Univ. of Arizona.

9. Shadows on Saturn

Saturn

The shadows of Saturn’s rings cast upon the planet’s cloud tops.

Shadows cast by Saturn’s rings make the planet look like it has been painted with Indian ink while spinning on a potter’s wheel. The rings themselves are out of view in this image, taken by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which has been orbiting Saturn since 2004. Courtesy NASA / JPL-Caltech / Space Science Institute.

10. Docking at the Station

Cgynus craft docked at the International Space Station

Cgynus cargo craft docked at the International Space Station

Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Cygnus commercial cargo spacecraft is seen docked to the Harmony module of the International Space Station. Attached is the Station’s robot arm, called Canadarm2 (being the second generation of robot arm supplied by Canada). The Cygnus craft was launched aboard an Antares rocket on January 9. Courtesy NASA.

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Mars: sharp image of Mount Sharp

MSL image of Mount Sharp

This mosaic of images from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity shows Mount Sharp in a white-balanced colour adjustment that makes the sky look overly blue but shows the terrain as if under Earth-like lighting.

RISING ABOVE THE PRESENT location of NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity, higher than any mountain in the 48 contiguous states of the United States, Mount Sharp is featured in new imagery from the rover.

A pair of mosaics assembled from dozens of telephoto images shows Mount Sharp in dramatic detail. The component images were taken by the 100-millimetre-focal-length telephoto lens camera mounted on the right side of Curiosity’s remote sensing mast, during the 45th Martian day of the rover’s mission on Mars (September 20, 2012).

The image above is only a small part of the whole panorama – you can see the full panorama here.

This layered mound, also called Aeolis Mons, in the centre of Gale Crater rises more than five kilometres above the crater floor location of Curiosity. Lower slopes of Mount Sharp remain a destination for the mission, though the rover will first spend many more weeks around a location called ‘Yellowknife Bay,’ where it has found evidence of a past environment favourable for microbial life.

A version of the mosaic that has been white-balanced to show the terrain as if under Earthlike lighting, which makes the sky look overly blue, can be seen here.

White-balanced versions help scientists recognise rock materials based on their terrestrial experience. The Martian sky would look like more of a butterscotch colour to the human eye. A version of the mosaic with raw colour, as a typical smart-phone camera would show the scene, is here.

In both versions, the sky has been filled out by extrapolating colour and brightness information from the portions of the sky that were captured in images of the terrain.

NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory project is using Curiosity and the rover’s 10 science instruments to investigate environmental history within Gale Crater, a location where the project has found that conditions were long ago favourable for microbial life.

More information:

NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory page

JPL’s Mars Science Laboratory page

Curiosity’s Twitter page

Adapted from information issued by JPL.

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Curiosity spotted from above

Curiosity Spotted on Parachute by Orbiter

NASA's Curiosity rover and its parachute were spotted by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter as Curiosity descended to the surface.

AN IMAGE FROM THE High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance orbiter (MRO) captured the Curiosity rover still connected to its almost 16-metre-wide parachute as it descended towards its landing site at Gale Crater.

“If HiRISE took the image one second before or one second after, we probably would be looking at an empty Martian landscape,” said Sarah Milkovich, HiRISE investigation scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“When you consider that we have been working on this sequence since March and had to upload commands to the spacecraft about 72 hours prior to the image being taken, you begin to realise how challenging this picture was to obtain.”

The image was taken while MRO was 340 kilometres away from the parachuting rover. Curiosity and its rocket-propelled backpack, contained within the conical-shaped back shell, had yet to be deployed. At the time, Curiosity was about three kilometres above the Martian surface.

“Guess you could consider us the closest thing to paparazzi on Mars,” said Milkovich. “We definitely caught NASA’s newest celebrity in the act.”

Map showing Curiosity's landing site

The green diamond shows approximately where NASA's Curiosity rover landed on Mars, a region about 2 kilometres northeast of its target in the centre of the estimated landing region (blue ellipse).

Curiosity’s parachute performed perfectly

HiRISE captured the image while the orbiter was listening to transmissions from the rover. Curiosity and its parachute are in the centre of the white box; the inset image is an enlargement, adjusted to avoid brightness saturation.

The rover was seen descending toward the etched plains just north of the sand dunes that fringe “Mt. Sharp”. From the perspective of the orbiter, the parachute and Curiosity were flying at an angle relative to the surface, so the landing site does not appear directly below the rover.

The parachute appeared fully inflated and performing perfectly. Details in the parachute, such as the band gap at the edges and the central hole, are clearly seen. The cords connecting the parachute to the back shell cannot be seen. The bright spot on the back shell containing Curiosity might be a specular reflection off of a shiny area. Curiosity was released from the back shell sometime after this image was acquired.

Rover’s second day on Mars

In other Curiosity news, one part of the rover team at the JPL continues to analyse the data from yesterday’s landing while another continues to prepare the one-tonne mobile laboratory for its future explorations of Gale Crater.

One key assignment given to Curiosity for its first full day on Mars is to raise its high-gain antenna. Using this antenna will increase the data rate at which the rover can communicate directly with Earth. The mission will use relays to orbiters as the primary method for sending data home, because that method is much more energy-efficient for the rover.

Image from one of Curiosity's Hazcams

A better version of yesterday's image taken by a rear Hazard-Avoidance camera on NASA's Curiosity rover. The image shows part of the radioisotope thermoelectric generator (the rover's power source), the rear left wheel and a spring that released the dust cover on the Hazard-Avoidance camera. Part of the rim of Gale Crater, which is a feature the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined, can be seen at the upper right of the image.

Adapted from information issued by NASA / JPL-Caltech / Univ. of Arizona.

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Curiosity rover lands on Mars

NASA’S MOST ADVANCED Mars rover, Curiosity, has landed on the Red Planet. The one-ton rover, hanging by ropes from a rocket backpack, touched down onto Mars on August 6 (Australian time) to end a 36-week flight and begin a two-year investigation.

Another image of Mars from Curiosity

A Hazcam image of Mars from Curiosity, showing the shadow of the rover.

The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) spacecraft that carried Curiosity succeeded in every step of the most complex landing ever attempted on Mars, including the final severing of the bridle cords and flyaway manoeuvre of the rocket backpack.

“Today, the wheels of Curiosity have begun to blaze the trail for human footprints on Mars.  Curiosity, the most sophisticated rover ever built, is now on the surface of the Red Planet, where it will seek to answer age-old questions about whether life ever existed on Mars — or if the planet can sustain life in the future,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “This is an amazing achievement, made possible by a team of scientists and engineers from around the world and led by the extraordinary men and women of NASA and our Jet Propulsion Laboratory. President Obama has laid out a bold vision for sending humans to Mars in the mid-2030’s, and today’s landing marks a significant step toward achieving this goal.”

Rover’s landing a triumph

Curiosity landed at 3:32pm Australian Eastern Standard Time (1:32am US EDT Aug. 6) near the foot of a mountain 5.5 kilometres tall and 154 kilometres in diameter inside Gale Crater. During a nearly two-year prime mission, the rover will investigate whether the region ever offered conditions favourable for microbial life.

“The Seven Minutes of Terror has turned into the Seven Minutes of Triumph,” said NASA Associate Administrator for Science John Grunsfeld. “My immense joy in the success of this mission is matched only by overwhelming pride I feel for the women and men of the mission’s team.”

Curiosity returned its first view of Mars, a wide-angle scene of rocky ground near the front of the rover. More images are anticipated in the next several days as the mission blends observations of the landing site with activities to configure the rover for work and check the performance of its instruments and mechanisms.

Confirmation of Curiosity’s successful landing came in communications relayed by NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter and received by the Canberra, Australia, antenna station of NASA’s Deep Space Network.

Image of Mars from the Curiosity rover

This is one of the first images taken by NASA's Curiosity rover. It was taken through a "fish-eye" wide-angle lens on the left "eye" of a stereo pair of Hazard-Avoidance cameras on the left-rear side of the rover. The image is one-half of full resolution. The clear dust cover that protected the camera during landing has been sprung open. Part of the spring that released the dust cover can be seen at the bottom right, near the rover's wheel. On the top left, part of the rover's power supply is visible. Some dust appears on the lens even with the dust cover off. The cameras are looking directly into the sun, so the top of the image is saturated. Looking straight into the sun does not harm the cameras. The lines across the top are an artifact called "blooming" that occurs in the camera's detector because of the saturation.

First images from Mars

About two hours after landing on Mars and beaming back its first image, NASA’s Curiosity rover transmitted a higher-resolution image (top of this page) of its new Martian home, Gale Crater. Mission Control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, received the image, taken by one of the vehicle’s lower-fidelity, black-and-white Hazard Avoidance Cameras – or Hazcams.

“Curiosity’s landing site is beginning to come into focus,” said John Grotzinger, project manager of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission, at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “In the image, we are looking to the northwest. What you see on the horizon is the rim of Gale Crater. In the foreground, you can see a gravel field. The question is, where does this gravel come from?  It is the first of what will be many scientific questions to come from our new home on Mars.”

While the image is twice as big in pixel size as the first images beamed down from the rover, they are only half the size of full-resolution Hazcam images. During future mission operations, these images will be used by the mission’s navigators and rover drivers to help plan the vehicle’s next drive. Other cameras aboard Curiosity, with colour capability and much higher resolution, are expected to be sent back to Earth over the next several days.

Curiosity’s mission begins in earnest

Curiosity carries 10 science instruments with a total mass 15 times as large as the science payloads on the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Some of the tools are the first of their kind on Mars, such as a laser-firing instrument for checking elemental composition of rocks from a distance. The rover will use a drill and scoop at the end of its robotic arm to gather soil and powdered samples of rock interiors, then sieve and parcel out these samples into analytical laboratory instruments inside the rover.

To handle this science toolkit, Curiosity is twice as long and five times as heavy as Spirit or Opportunity. The Gale Crater landing site places the rover within driving distance of layers of the crater’s interior mountain. Observations from orbit have identified clay and sulphate minerals in the lower layers, indicating a wet history

For more information on the mission, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/mars

http://marsprogram.jpl.nasa.gov/msl

Follow the mission on Facebook and Twitter at:

http://www.facebook.com/marscuriosity

http://www.twitter.com/marscuriosity

Adapted from information issued by NASA/JPL-Caltech.

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Mars landing today

Artist's impression of Curiosity about to land on Mars

Artist's impression of Curiosity about to land on Mars.

THE GRAVITATIONAL TUG Mars is now pulling NASA’s car-size geochemistry laboratory, Curiosity, in for a suspenseful landing in just hours.

“After flying more than eight months and 367 million kilometres [350 million miles] since launch, the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft is now right on target to fly through the eye of the needle that is our target at the top of the Mars atmosphere,” said Mission Manager Arthur Amador of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

The spacecraft is healthy and on course for delivering the mission’s Curiosity rover close to a Martian mountain at 3:31pm Australian Eastern Standard time on Monday, August 6 (10:31pm Sunday, Aug. 5 US PDT, or 1:31am Monday, Aug. 6 US EDT). That’s the time a signal confirming safe landing could reach Earth, give or take about a minute for the spacecraft’s adjustments to sense changeable atmospheric conditions.

The only way a safe-landing confirmation can arrive during that first opportunity is via a relay by NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter. Curiosity will not be communicating directly with Earth as it lands, because Earth will set beneath the Martian horizon from Curiosity’s perspective about two minutes before the landing.

“We are expecting Odyssey to relay good news,” said Steve Sell of the JPL engineering team that developed and tested the mission’s complicated “sky crane” landing system. “That moment has been more than eight years in the making.”

WATCH THE LANDING LIVE

The following sites will be streaming live coverage of Curiosity’s landing:

NASA.gov

NASA’s YouTube channel

NASA UStream

All systems go

A dust storm in southern Mars being monitored by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter appears to be dissipating. “Mars is cooperating by providing good weather for landing,” said JPL’s Ashwin Vasavada, deputy project scientist for Curiosity.

Curiosity was approaching Mars at about 12,800 km/h, Saturday morning. By the time the spacecraft hits the top of Mars’ atmosphere, about seven minutes before touchdown, gravity will accelerate it to about 21,000 km/h.

NASA plans to use Curiosity to investigate whether the study area has ever offered environmental conditions favourable for microbial life, including chemical ingredients for life.

“In the first few weeks after landing, we will be ramping up science activities gradually as we complete a series of checkouts and we gain practice at operating this complex robot in Martian conditions,” said JPL’s Richard Cook, deputy project manager for Curiosity.

First pictures

The first Mars pictures expected from Curiosity are reduced-resolution fisheye black-and-white images received either in the first few minutes after touchdown or more than two hours later. Higher resolution and colour images from other cameras could come later in the first week. Plans call for Curiosity to deploy a directional antenna on the first day after landing and raise the camera mast on the second day.

The big hurdle is landing. Under some possible scenarios, Curiosity could land safely, but temporary communication difficulties could delay for hours or even days any confirmation that the rover has survived landing.

The prime mission lasts a full Martian year, which is nearly two Earth years. During that period, researchers plan to drive Curiosity partway up a mountain informally called Mount Sharp. Observations from orbit have identified exposures there of clay and sulphate minerals that formed in wet environments.

Information about the mission and about ways to participate in challenges of the landing, including a new video game:

http://www.nasa.gov/mars

http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl

Adapted from information issued by NASA.

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The year ahead in space

Artist's impression of the Curiosity rover on Mars.

Artist's impression of the Curiosity rover on Mars. The craft is due to arrive on Mars on August 6, 2012.

THIS YEAR IS GOING TO BE A BIG ONE in terms of space activity, and will include some events you’ll be able to experience firsthand. Let’s count down the top five.

At number five we have NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission, carrying the Curiosity rover to the Red Planet. Scheduled to arrive on August 6, it will land in Gale Crater (named after a 19th-20th century Australian astronomer, Walter Frederick Gale) and look for signs of organic chemicals. The 900-kilogram, nuclear-powered rover has a primary mission of two years but is expected to last for much longer than that.

At number four we have the total eclipse of the Sun on November 14. The path of totality runs along a narrow west-east strip of far northern Queensland, taking in Cairns and surrounding areas. The thousands of people who are expected to flock to the area will experience two minutes of totality shortly after sunrise—observers elsewhere in Australia will witness a partial eclipse.

After this, the next total solar eclipse to be visible from Australia will be in 2028, when the path of totality will run straight through Sydney.

Transit of Venus

The transit of Venus will be seen on the morning of June 6 in Australia. There won't be another one until the year 2117.

Coming in at number three is an event you won’t want to miss, as you’ll never get a chance to see another one. It’s the transit of Venus, which will happen on the morning of June 6. A transit occurs when one of the inner planets, in this case Venus, moves between Earth and the Sun and we see it as a small black dot slowly crawling across the solar face. It was to observe a transit of Venus that Captain Cook travelled to the South Pacific in the 18th century … and on his way home bumped into a certain large, dry continent, girt by sea.

Transits of Venus are very rare. They happen in pairs eight years apart (so the last one was in 2004), but between pairs there is a gap of over 100 years. So the 20th century totally missed out, and after June there won’t be another one until the year 2117. So don’t miss it!

Number two on our list is the decision on where the Square Kilometre Array, or SKA, will be built. The SKA will be an enormous network of radio dishes and antennae spread over an area the size of a continent. It will enable astronomers to look back towards the beginning of time, and study the evolution of stars and galaxies throughout cosmic history.

Artist's impression of part of the Square Kilometre Array.

Artist's impression of part of the Square Kilometre Array.

In a situation reminiscent of the Olympics, two regions have put in bids to host the facility and are eagerly awaiting the decision of the international panel. A joint bid by Australia and New Zealand is up against a consortium of southern African countries. The decision could be announced next month. If Australasia gets it, the core of the network will be located in a remote region of Western Australia, but with many other dishes spread out across the nation and into New Zealand.

And so after all of these fantastic events, what could we possibly have in the number one spot on our countdown? What will be this year’s biggest cosmic event? Why, the very survival of Planet Earth of course! In case you haven’t heard, a lot of people seem to be very worried about two things—the apparent end of the Mayan Long Count calendar in December (and the implied end of civilisation as we know it), and a collision between Earth and a planet called Nibiru.

Well, as far as the Mayan calendar is concerned, there is no cause for alarm. Like the Gregorian calendar we use every day, it will simply tick over to a new Long Count and we’ll all live happily every after.

That is, unless we get wiped out by that collision with Nibiru. Frightened? Don’t be. For you see, there’s a basic flaw in the Nibiru hypothesis, and it’s simply this … Nibiru doesn’t exist. It’s a fiction invented by some loopy, cosmic conspiracy nutters. There is no evidence for such a planet, and no evidence that Earth is in any danger from a collision with any other planet, known or unknown. Phew!

UPDATE, February 6: BTW, I misspoke on the Today Show this morning, saying that the next total solar eclipse after this year’s one will occur in the year 2128. I should have said 2028 of course.

Story by Jonathan Nally

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Road to Mars – Six minutes of terror!

Artist's impression of Mar Science Laboratory about to enter Mars' atmosphere.

Artist's impression of Mar Science Laboratory about to enter Mars' atmosphere.

THE MARS SCIENCE LABORATORY (MSL) team is calling it the “six minutes of terror”—the time between entering the Red Planet’s atmosphere and landing on its surface.

The NASA probe, carrying the Curiosity rover, will be using a totally new landing technique called the “sky crane”, whereby the six-wheeled vehicle will be lowered by cable down to the surface from an altitude of about 20 metres…courtesy of a rocket powered descent stage.

This graphic shows us the different parts of MSL: the cruise stage (which looks after the whole ensemble on the way to Mars); the backshell (which protects the rover during the cruise to Mars and initial atmosphere entry); the parachute (contained within the backshell); the descent stage (which will handle the final part of the descent); the rover itself; and the heatshield.

Breakout graphic showing the parts of MSL

The Curiosity rover is kept safe by several layers of protection on the cruise to Mars, and during atmospheric entry and landing.

Doing most of the work during the atmospheric entry will be the huge heatshield. At 14 metres wide, it is the largest heatshield ever sent to another planet, and about half a metre wider than that used by the Apollo spacecraft in the 1960s and 1970s. It will need to withstand temperatures up to 2,100 degrees Celsius. These couple of photos will give you an idea of the size:

MSL heatshield

The space shuttle aside, Mars Science Laboratory's heatshield is the largest ever to be flown in space.

View of the MSL heatshield

Here's another view, showing the craft upside down in a cradle.

Packed inside the backshell is the parachute, the largest ever sent to another planet. It’s also the largest “disc-cap-band” of any kind ever made. It is 16 metres wide and has 80 suspension lines that are 20 metres long. When deployed during the descent through Mars’ thin air, it will need to withstand a wind speed of Mach 2.2.

Here’s a photo of it, with some people standing nearby to give a sense of scale:

MSL parachute

The huge parachute that Mars Science Laboratory will use to slow its descent through the Martian atmosphere.

And here’s a video of it being tested at AEDC’s National Full-Scale Aerodynamics Complex 40-metre wind tunnel—the largest in the world—at NASA’s Ames Research Laboratory in California. The action starts about 53 seconds in:

Quite impressive isn’t it? The parachute will deploy just over four minutes after atmospheric entry, and about two-and-a-half minutes before landing. At this stage the craft will be travelling at about 1,450 kilometres per hour! Twenty-four seconds after the parachute unfurls, with the speed down to about 500 kilometres per hour, the heatshield will drop away.

Another 70 seconds (approximately) and the parachute and backshell will detach, and the descent stage rockets will fire up for the final, powered descent stage.

The following video animation takes us through the interplanetary cruise phase, and the whole entry, descent and landing. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that everyone works as planned on August 6 next year!

Story by Jonathan Nally. Images and videos courtesy NASA.

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Mars mission on its way!

A HISTORIC VOYAGE to Mars has begun with the launch of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory, which carries a car-sized rover named Curiosity.

The mission will pioneer precision landing technology and a sky-crane touchdown to place Curiosity near the foot of a mountain inside Gale Crater on August 6, 2012.

During a nearly two-year prime mission after landing, the rover will investigate whether the region has ever offered conditions favourable for microbial life, including the chemical ingredients for life.

The Atlas V rocket initially lofted the spacecraft into Earth orbit and then, with a second burst from the vehicle’s upper stage, pushed it out of Earth orbit into a 567-million-kilometre journey to Mars.

Adapted from information issued by NASA.

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Mars rover to launch this week

NASA’S MARS SCIENCE LABORATORY mission, carrying the car-sized Curiosity rover, is only days away from launch. The video above explains what scientists hope to achieve with the mission.

The ambitious mission will see the nuclear-powered rover spend at least two years investigating the geology of Gale Crater, a 154-kilometre-wide crater just south of Mars crater.

Gale is named after Walter Frederick Gale, an Australian astronomer of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Mars Science Laboratory is set for lift-off at 2:02am, Sydney time, on Sunday, November 27.

Adapted from information issued by NASA.

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Mars rover moving closer to launch

NASA’S NEXT MARS ROVER will land at the foot of a layered mountain inside the planet’s Gale Crater. The car-sized Mars Science Laboratory, or Curiosity, is scheduled to launch between mid-November and mid-December this year and land in August 2012.

The target crater spans 154 kilometres in diameter and holds a mountain rising higher from the crater floor than Mount Rainier rises above Seattle. Layering in the region suggests it is the surviving remnant of an extensive sequence of geological deposits.

During a prime mission lasting one Martian year—nearly two Earth years—researchers will use the rover’s tools to study whether the landing region had favourable environmental conditions for supporting microbial life and for preserving clues about whether life ever existed.

The video above provides a snapshot of work to get the rover ready for launch at the Kennedy Space Centre. The video below talks about Gale Crater and what scientists hope to find.

Adapted from information issued by NASA / JPL.

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