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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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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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Aussie video shows Curiosity leaving Earth

THIS AMAZING VIDEO was taken by Australian amateur astronomer Duncan Waldron with assistance from Mark Rigby of the Sir Thomas Brisbane Planetarium in Brisbane, Australia.

It shows the departing Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), which was launched from Cape Canaveral early on Sunday morning, Australian Eastern Daylight time.

The fuzzy triangular shape is likely to be gas venting from the Centaur rocket upper stage which boosted the probe out of Earth orbit.

Plumes that look similar to this one can sometimes be seen by skywatchers if they’re in the right place at the right time to catch a satellite being boosted into its final orbit by what’s called an “apogee kick motor”…and often lead to UFO reports, as the sight is very unusual.

Below is a photograph of the plume (lower left corner) taken by Duncan Waldron from the Sir Thomas Brisbane Planetarium.

Plume from MSL's Centaur as it departed Earth

As NASA's Mars Science Laboratory departed Earth, astronomer Duncan Waldron at the Sir Thomas Brisbane Planetarium snapped this photo of what is apparently gas venting from the probe's spent Centaur booster rocket.

Story by Jonathan Nally.

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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 mission launch gets closer

NASA’S MARS SCIENCE LABORATORY will leave Earth later this year, on target for a landing on Mars in August 2012. This new animation details some of the dramatic events we can expect from the mission, including the spacecraft separating from its launch vehicle near Earth and the mission’s rover, Curiosity, zapping rocks with a laser and examining samples of powdered rock on Mars.

Curiosity’s landing will use a different method than any previous Mars landing, with the rover suspended on tethers from a rocket-powered “sky crane.”

Here’s a shorter, narrated version of the video:

Adapted from information issued by NASA / JPL.

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Mission to Mars

A ROVER THE SIZE OF A SMALL CAR will set sail for the Red Planet later this year.

The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission will land the rover Curiosity on the surface of Mars, to conduct extended investigations of the planet’s surface…the aim being to work out if Mars has, or had, environmental conditions able to support microbes.

Curiosity is much bigger than past rovers. Sojourner, part of the Pathfinder mission that landed in 1997, was about the size of a microwave oven. Spirit and Opportunity, twin rovers that landed in 2004, are each about the size of a domestic refrigerator.

Curiosity will be five times heavier, and carry 10 times as much scientific gear, than Spirit or Opportunity.

MSL/Curiosity is due for launch on 25 November 2011, and land on Mars on 6 August 2012.

Video and images courtesy NASA / JPL-Caltech.

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Mars rover learns to reach out

NASA’s next Mars rover, Curiosity—also known as the Mars Science Laboratory—is taking shape in advance of its launch next year. The video above recounts the latest milestone…the attachment of the rover’s robotic arm.

About the size of an SUV car, the rover has six wheels with their own electric motors. All up, the wheel mobility system has 10 motors—four for steering the rover and six for driving.

Due to land on the Red Planet in August 2012, Curiosity will be the largest rover ever sent to Mars. It will carry 10 instruments that will help assess an intriguing region of the planet for two things: environments where life might have existed, and the capacity of those environments to preserve evidence of past life.

The video below shows Curiosity taking its first “baby steps” in the laboratory.

Adapted from information issued by NASA.

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Mars landing movie

  • Mars Science Laboratory due to land August 2012
  • Downward facing camera will record landing
  • Video and still pictures sent back to Earth

A downward-pointing camera on the front-left side of NASA’s Curiosity rover will give adventure fans worldwide an unprecedented sense of riding a spacecraft to a landing on Mars.

The Mars Descent Imager, or MARDI, will start recording high-resolution video about two minutes before landing in August 2012.

Initial frames will glimpse the heat shield falling away from beneath the rover, revealing a swath of Martian terrain below illuminated in afternoon sunlight. The first scenes will cover ground several kilometres (a few miles) across. Successive images will close in and cover a smaller area each second.

The full-colour video will likely spin, then shake, as the Mars Science Laboratory mission’s parachute, then its rocket-powered backpack, slow the rover’s descent. The left-front wheel will pop into view when Curiosity extends its mobility and landing gear.

The spacecraft’s own shadow, unnoticeable at first, will grow in size and slide westward across the ground. The shadow and rover will meet at a place that, in the final moments, becomes the only patch of ground visible, about the size of a bath towel and underneath the rover.

Dust kicked up by the rocket engines during landing may swirl as the video ends and Curiosity’s surface mission can begin.

Models of Sojourner, a Mars Exploration Rover, and MSL.

Full-scale models of three generations of Red Planet rovers: front, the Sojourner rover (about the size of a microwave oven) landed as part of the Pathfinder mission in 1997; left, one of the twins, Spirit and Opportunity, landed in 2004; and right, the Mars Science Laboratory, due to land in August 2012.

All of this, recorded at about four frames per second and close to 1,600 by 1,200 pixels per frame, will be stored safely into the Mars Descent Imager’s own flash memory during the landing.

But the camera’s principal investigator, Michael Malin of Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego, and everyone else will need to be patient. Curiosity will be about 250 million kilometres (about 150 million miles) from Earth at that point. It will send images and other data to Earth via relay by one or two Mars orbiters, so the daily data volume will be limited by the amount of time the orbiters are overhead each day.

“Each of the 10 science instruments on the rover has a role in making the mission successful,” said John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, chief scientist for the Mars Science Laboratory.

“This one will give us a sense of the terrain around the landing site and may show us things we want to study. Information from these images will go into our initial decisions about where the rover will go.”

Adapted from information issued by NASA / JPL / MSSS.

Please note that the video above was made prior to the decision to defer the launch date of MSL. Disregard the reference to October 2010 at the end of the video.

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