Saturday, August 4, 2012

A Curious Footprint

Lasers!  Credit: JPL/Caltech
In less than two days, NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) / Curiosity rover will begin its harrowing descent to the Martian surface.  If everything goes according to the kind-of-crazy-what-the-heck-is-a-sky-crane plan, this process will be referred to as "landing" (otherwise, more crashy/explodey gerunds will no doubt be used).

The MSL mission is run through NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory where, by coincidence, I happen to be at the moment.  Now, I'm not working on this project, so I don't have a lot to add that isn't available elsewhere.  BUT I do feel an authority-by-proximity kind of fallacy kicking in, so how about a post why not?

Preliminaries

Before we get started, I feel obligated to link to NASA's Seven Minutes of Terror video.  If you haven't seen it yet, I highly recommend watching it right now (my favorite part is the subtitles).  It has over a million views on YouTube and seems to have done a pretty good job at generating interest in the mission.  Although, it's a shame they had to interview the first guy in what appears to be a police interrogation room.  Oh well.

About the Rover

This thing is big.  It's the size of a car and is jam-packed with scientific equipment.  There's a couple different spectrometers, a bunch of cameras, a drill for collecting rock samples, and radiation detectors.  Probably the coolest instrument onboard Curiosity is called the ChemCam.  The ChemCam uses a laser to vaporize small regions of rock, which allows it to study the composition of things about 20 feet away.  

In addition to the scientific payload, Curiosity also needs some way to generate power.  Previous rovers had been powered by solar panels, but there don't appear to be any here.  Instead, Curiosity is powered by the heat released from the radioactive decay of about 10 pounds of plutonium dioxide.  This source will power the rover for about a Martian year well beyond the currently planned mission duration of one Martian year (about 687 Earth days)  [Thanks to Nathan in the comments for pointing this out!].

To summarize, the rover is a nuclear-powered lab-on-wheels that shoots lasers out of its head.  This is pretty cool.

In non-SI units, the MSL is roughly one handsome man (1 hm) tall

A Curious Footprint

There's been a lot of preparation at JPL this week for the upcoming landing.  All the shiny rover models have been taken out of the visitor's center and put in a tent outside, presumably so there will be a pretty backdrop for press reports and the like. 

Anyway, I was out taking pictures of the rovers at the end of the day today when someone pointed out something cool about the tires on Curiosity.

Here's a close-up:

Hole-y Tires
Each tire on the rover is has "JPL" punched out in Morse code!  Makes sense, though.  If you're going to spend $2.5 billion on something, you might as well put your name on it.

Watch the Landing

If you want to watch the landing, check out the NASA TV stream.  The landing is scheduled for Sunday night at 10:31 pm PDT (1:31 am EDT).  Until then, it looks like they are showing a lot of interviews and other cool behind-the-scenes kind of stuff.

5 comments:

  1. A correction: the length of the one martian year mission isn't limited by the RTG powering the rover. In fact, the RTG will still be producing power at 80% capacity after 14 years of operation (if the servos and motors that control the rover last that long). I think the one martian year timescale is based on funding more than anything. Just like Opportunity and Spirit, Curiosity will have an extended mission.

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    1. Thanks! The post has been updated accordingly.

      It would really be really exciting if the MSL shows the same kind of endurance as Spirit and Opportunity.

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