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Schematic diagram of the planned rover components.
The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), known as Curiosity, is a NASA rover scheduled to be launched in October 2011 and would perform the first-ever precision landing on Mars. It is a rover that will assess whether Mars ever was, or is still today, an environment able to support microbial life. In other words, its mission is to determine the planet's habitability. It will also analyze samples scooped up from the soil and drilled powders from rocks.
The MSL rover will be over five times as heavy and carry over ten times the weight in scientific instruments as the Spirit or Opportunity rovers. The United States, Canada, Germany, France, Russia and Spain will provide the instruments on board. The MSL rover will be launched by an Atlas V 541 rocket and will be expected to operate for at least 1 Martian year (668 Martian sols/686 Earth days) as it explores with greater range than any previous Mars rover.
Mars Science Laboratory is part of NASA's Mars Exploration Program, a long-term effort of robotic exploration of Mars, and is a project managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The total cost of the MSL project is about $2.3 billion USD.
Goals and objectives
The MSL has four goals: To determine if life ever arose on Mars, to characterize the climate of Mars, to characterize the geology of Mars, and to prepare for human exploration. To contribute to the four science goals and meet its specific goal of determining Mars' habitability, Mars Science Laboratory has eight scientific objectives:
- Determine the nature and inventory of organic carbon compounds.
- Inventory the chemical building blocks of life as we know it: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur.
- Identify features that may represent the effects of biological processes.
- Investigate the chemical, isotopic, and mineralogical composition of the Martian surface and near-surface geological materials.
- Interpret the processes that have formed and modified rocks and soils.
- Assess long-timescale (i.e., 4-billion-year) Martian atmospheric evolution processes.
- Determine present state, distribution, and cycling of water and carbon dioxide.
- Characterize the broad spectrum of surface radiation, including galactic radiation, cosmic radiation, solar proton events and secondary neutrons.
In September 2006, MSL was approved by NASA for a 2009 launch.
In April 2008, it was reported that the project was $235 million USD, or 24% over budget and that the money to compensate this overrun may have to come from other NASA Mars missions.
In October 2008, MSL was getting closer to a 30% cost overrun.
On November 19, 2008, NASA announced that MSL project leaders at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) had reduced the list of candidate landing sites to four: Eberswalde, Gale, Holden, Mawrth.
As of November 2008, development is essentially finished, much of MSL hardware and software are complete and testing is ongoing.
On December 3, 2008, NASA announced that the MSL launch will be delayed until the fall of 2011 because of inadequate test time. The technical and budgetary reasons behind the delay were explained to the Planetary Science Community in a January 2009 meeting at NASA Headquarters.
From March 23–29, 2009, the general public had an opportunity to rank nine finalist names through a public poll on the NASA website as additional input for judges to consider during the MSL name selection process. On May 27, 2009, the winning name of Curiosity, which was submitted by a sixth-grader, Clara Ma, from Kansas was chosen.
The MSL will have a length of 9 feet (2.7 m) and weigh 1,984 pounds (900 kg) including 176 pounds (80 kg) of scientific instruments. It will be the same size as a Mini Cooper automobile. This compares to the Mars Exploration Rovers which have a length of 5 feet 2 inches (1.57 m) and weigh 384 pounds (174 kg) including 15 pounds (6.8 kg) of scientific instruments.
Once on the surface, the MSL rover will be able to roll over obstacles approaching 75 centimeters (30 in) high. Maximum terrain-traverse speed is estimated to be 90 meters (300 ft) per hour via automatic navigation, however, average traverse speeds will likely be about 30 meters (100 ft) per hour, based on variables including power levels, difficulty of the terrain, slippage, and visibility. MSL is expected to traverse a minimum of 12 miles (19 km) in its two-year mission.
The MSL will be powered by radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs), as used by the successful Mars landers Viking 1 and Viking 2 in 1976. Radioisotope power systems are generators that produce electricity from the natural decay of plutonium-238, which is a non-weapons-grade form of that radioisotope used in power systems for NASA spacecraft. Heat given off by the natural decay of this isotope is converted into electricity, providing constant power during all seasons and through the day and night, and waste heat can be used via pipes to warm systems, freeing electrical power for the operation of the vehicle and instruments.
The MSL power source will use the latest RTG generation built by Boeing, called the "Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator" (MMRTG). The MMRTG is a flexible and compact power system under development that is based on conventional RTGs. The MMRTG is designed to produce 125 watts of electrical power at the start of the mission and 100 watts after 14 years. The MSL will generate 2.5 kilowatt hours per day compared to the Mars Exploration Rovers which can generate about 0.6 kilowatt hours per day. Although the primary mission is planned to last about 2 Earth years, the MMRTG will have a minimum lifetime of 14 years.
Heat Rejection System
The temperatures in the potential areas that the MSL might land at can vary from +86°F to −197°F (+30 to −127°C). Therefore, the Heat Rejection System (HRS) uses fluid pumped through 200 feet of tubes in the MSL body so that sensitive components are kept at optimal temperatures. Other methods of heating the internal components include using radiated heat generated from the components in the craft itself, as well as excess heat from the MMRTG unit. The HRS also has the ability to cool components if necessary.
The two identical on-board rover computers, called "Rover Electronics Module" (REM), contain radiation hardened memory to tolerate the extreme radiation environment from space and to safeguard against power-off cycles. Each computer's memory includes 256 kB of EEPROM, 256 MB of DRAM, and 2 GB of flash memory. This compares to 3 MB of EEPROM, 128 MB of DRAM, and 256 MB of flash memory used in the Mars Exploration Rovers.
The REM computers use the RAD750 CPU which is a successor to the RAD6000 CPU used in the Mars Exploration Rovers. The RAD750 CPU is capable of up to 400 MIPS while the RAD6000 CPU is capable of up to 35 MIPS.
The rover has an Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) that provides 3-axis information on its position which is used in rover navigation. The rover's computers are constantly self-monitoring itself to keep the rover operational, such as by regulating the rover's temperature. Activities such as taking pictures, driving, and operating the instruments are performed in a command sequence that is sent from the flight team to the rover. In the event of problems with the main computer, the backup computer will take over.
At present, 10 instruments have been selected for development or production for the Mars Science Laboratory rover:
Cameras (MastCam, MAHLI, MARDI)
The MastCam, MAHLI, and MARDI cameras are being developed by Malin Space Science Systems and they all share common design components, such as on-board electronic imaging processing boxes, 1600x1200 CCDs, and a RGB Bayer pattern filter.
- MastCam: This system will provide multiple spectra and true color imaging with two cameras. The cameras can take true color images at 1200x1200 pixels and up to 10 frames per second hardware-compressed, high-definition video at 720p (1280x720). One camera will be the Medium Angle Camera (MAC) which has a 34 mm focal length, a 15 degree field of view, and can yield 22 cm/pixel scale at 1 km. The other camera will be the Narrow Angle Camera (NAC) which has a 100 mm focal length, a 5.1-degree field of view, and can yield 7.4 cm/pixel scale at 1 km. Each camera will have 8 GB of flash memory, which is capable of storing over 5,500 raw images, and can apply real time lossless or JPEG compression. The cameras have an autofocus capability which allows them to focus on objects from 2.1 meters (6.9 ft) to infinity. Each camera will also have a RGB Bayer pattern filter with 8 filter positions. In comparison to the 1024x1024 black & white panoramic cameras used on the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) the MAC MastCam will have 1.25X higher spatial resolution and the NAC MastCam will have 3.67X higher spatial resolution.
- Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI): This system will consist of a camera mounted to a robotic arm on the rover. It will be used to acquire microscopic images of rock and soil. MAHLI can take true color images at 1600x1200 pixels with a resolution as high as 14.5 micrometers per pixel. MAHLI has a 18.3 mm to 21.3 mm focal length and a 33.8 to 38.5 degree field of view. MAHLI will have both white and UV LED illumination for imaging in darkness or imaging fluorescence. MAHLI will also have mechanical focusing in a range from infinite to mm distances. MAHLI can store either the raw images or do real time lossless predictive or JPEG compression.
- MSL Mars Descent Imager (MARDI): During the descent to the Martian surface, MARDI will take color images at 1600x1200 pixels with a 1.3 millisecond exposure time starting at distances of about 3.7 km to near 5 meters from the ground and will take images at a rate of 5 frames per second for about 2 minutes. MARDI has a pixel scale of 1.5 meters at 2 km to 1.5 millimeters at 2 meters and has a 90 degree circular field of view. MARDI will have 8 GB of internal buffer memory which is capable of storing over 4,000 raw images. MARDI imaging will allow the mapping of surrounding terrain and the location of landing.
ChemCam is a suite of remote sensing instruments, including the first laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS) system to be used for planetary science and a remote micro-imager (RMI). The LIBS instrument can target a rock or soil sample from up to 7 meters away, vaporizing a small amount of it and then collecting a spectrum of the light emitted by the vaporized rock. An infrared laser with 1067 nm wavelength and a 5 nanosecond pulse will focus on a sub-millimeter spot with a power in excess of 10 megawatts, depositing 15mJ of energy. Detection of the ball of luminous plasma will be done in the visible and near-UV and near-IR range, between 240 nm and 800 nm. Using the same collection optics, the RMI provides context images of the LIBS analysis spots. The RMI resolves 1 mm objects at 10 m distance, and has a field of view covering 20 cm at that distance. The ChemCam instrument suite is being developed by the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the French CESR laboratory. NASA's cost for ChemCam is approximately $10M, including an overrun of about $1.5M , a very tiny fraction of the total mission costs. The flight model of the Mast Unit was delivered from the French CNES to Los Alamos National Laboratory and was able to deliver the engineering model to JPL in February 2008.
Alpha-particle X-ray spectrometer (APXS)
This device will irradiate samples with alpha particles and map the spectra of X-rays that are reemitted for determining the elemental composition of samples. It is being developed by the Canadian Space Agency. The APXS is a form of PIXE, which has previously been used by the Mars Pathfinder and the Mars Exploration Rovers.
Chemin stands for "Chemistry and Mineralogy" and is a X-Ray Diffraction/X-Ray Fluorescence Instrument. CheMin is a X-ray diffraction/X-ray fluorescence instrument that will quantify minerals and mineral structure of samples. It is being developed by Dr. David Blake at NASA Ames Research Center and the NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM)
The SAM instrument suite will analyze organics and gases from both atmospheric and solid samples. It is being developed by the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, the Laboratoire Inter-Universitaire des Systèmes Atmosphériques (LISA) of France's CNRS and Honeybee Robotics, along with many additional external partners. The SAM suite consists of three instruments:
- Quadrupole Mass Spectrometer (QMS)
- Gas Chromatograph (GC)
- Tunable Laser Spectrometer (TLS)
The Quadrupole Mass Spectrometer (QMS) will detect gases sampled from the atmosphere or those released from solid samples by heating. The Gas Chromatograph (GC) will be used to separate out individual gases from a complex mixture into molecular components with a mass range of 2–235 u. The Tunable Laser Spectrometer (TLS) will perform precision measurements of oxygen and carbon isotope ratios in carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) in the atmosphere of Mars in order to distinguish between a geochemical and a biological origin.
The SAM also has three subsystems: The Chemical Separation and Processing Laboratory (CSPL), for enrichment and derivatization of the organic molecules of the sample; the Sample Manipulation System (SMS) for transporting powder delivered from the MSL drill to a SAM inlet and into one of 74 sample cups. The SMS then moves the sample to the SAM oven to release gases by heating to up to 1000 oC; and the Wide Range Pumps (WRP) subsystem to purge the QMS, TLS, and the CPSL.
Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD)
This instrument will characterize the broad spectrum of radiation found near the surface of Mars for purposes of determining the viability and shielding needs for human explorers. Funded by the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters and developed by Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) and the extraterrestrial physics group at Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel, Germany.
Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN)
A pulsed neutron source and detector for measuring hydrogen or ice and water at or near the Martian surface, provided by the Russian Federal Space Agency.
Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS)
Meteorological package and an ultraviolet sensor provided by the Spanish Ministry of Education and Science. It will be mounted on the camera mast and measure atmospheric pressure, humidity, wind currents and direction, air and ground temperature and ultraviolet radiation levels.
MSL Entry Descent and Landing Instrumentation (MEDLI)
The MEDLI project’s main objective is to measure aerothermal environments, sub-surface heat shield material response, vehicle orientation, and atmospheric density for the atmospheric entry through the sensible atmosphere down to heat shield separation of the Mars Science Laboratory entry vehicle. The MEDLI instrumentation suite will be installed in the heatshield of the MSL entry vehicle. The acquired data will support future Mars missions by providing measured atmospheric data to validate Mars atmosphere models and clarify the design margins on future Mars missions. MEDLI instrumentation consists of three main subsystems: MEDLI Integrated Sensor Plugs (MISP), Mars Entry Atmospheric Data System (MEADS) and the Sensor Support Electronics (SSE).
Hazard Avoidance Cameras (Hazcams)
The MSL will use four pairs of black and white navigation cameras located on the front left and right and rear left and right of the rover. The Hazard Avoidance Cameras (also called Hazcams) are used for autonomous hazard avoidance during rover drives and for safe positioning of the robotic arm on rocks and soils. The cameras will use visible light to capture three-dimensional (3-D) imagery. The cameras have a 120 degree field of view and map the terrain at up to 10 feet (3 meters) in front of the rover. This imagery safeguards against the rover inadvertently crashing into unexpected obstacles, and works in tandem with software that allows the rover to make its own safety choices.
The MSL will use two pairs of black and white navigation cameras mounted on the mast to support ground navigation. The cameras will use visible light to capture three-dimensional (3-D) imagery. The cameras have a 45 degree field of view.
The MSL will be launched using the Atlas V 541 which is a two stage rocket capable of launching up to 17,597 pounds (8,672 kg) to geostationary transfer orbit. The Atlas V has also been used to launch the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and New Horizons.
MSL landing diagram for outside Martian atmosphere and for entry.
MSL landing diagram for parachute descent, powered descent, and sky crane.
Landing a large mass on Mars is a difficult challenge: the atmosphere is thick enough to prevent rockets being used to provide significant deceleration, but too thin for parachutes and aerobraking alone to be effective. Although some previous missions have used airbags to cushion the shock of landing, the MSL is too large for this to be an option.
It is planned that the MSL will perform the first-ever precision landing on Mars by demonstrating the ability to land within a predetermined 20 km (12.4 miles) landing ellipse. For this, the MSL will employ a combination of several systems in a precise order, where the entry, descent and landing sequence will break down into four parts.
- Guided entry - The MSL will be set down on the Martian surface using a new high-precision entry, descent, and landing (EDL) system that will place it in a 20 kilometer (12 mile) landing ellipse, in contrast to the 150 kilometer by 20 kilometer (about 93 miles by 12 miles) landing ellipse of the landing systems used by the Mars Exploration Rovers. The rover is folded up within an aeroshell which protects it during the travel through space and during the atmospheric entry at Mars. Much of the reduction of the landing precision error is accomplished by an entry guidance algorithm, similar to that used by the astronauts returning to Earth in the Apollo space program. This guidance uses the lifting force experienced by the aeroshell to "fly out" any detected error in range and thereby arrive at the targeted landing site. In order for the aeroshell to have lift, its center of mass is offset from the axial centerline which results in an off-center trim angle in atmospheric flight, again similar to the Apollo Command Module. This is accomplished by a series of ejectable ballast masses. The lift vector is controlled by four sets of two Reaction Control System (RCS) thrusters that produce approximately 500 N of thrust per pair. This ability to change the pointing of the direction of lift allows the spacecraft to react to the ambient environment, and steer toward the landing zone.
The MSL test parachute. Note the people in the lower-right corner of the image.
- Parachute descent - Like Viking, Mars Pathfinder and the Mars Exploration Rovers, the Mars Science Laboratory will be slowed by a large parachute. After the entry phase is complete and the capsule has slowed to Mach 2, a supersonic parachute is deployed. The entry vehicle must first eject the ballast mass such that the center of gravity offset is removed. In March and April 2009 the parachute for the MSL was tested in the world's largest wind tunnel and passed flight-qualification testing. The parachute has 80 suspension lines, is over 165 feet (50 meters) long, and is about 51 feet (16 meters) in diameter. The parachute is capable of being deployed at Mach 2.2 and can generate up to 65,000 pounds of drag force in the Martian atmosphere.
- Powered descent - Following the parachute braking, the rover and descent stage drop out of the aeroshell. The descent stage is a platform above the rover with variable thrust mono propellant hydrazine rocket thrusters on arms extending around this platform to slow the descent. Meanwhile, the rover itself is being transformed from its stowed flight configuration to a landing configuration while being lowered beneath the descent stage by the "sky crane" system.
- Sky Crane - Like a large crane on Earth, the sky crane system will lower the rover to a "soft landing"–wheels down–on the surface of Mars. This consists of 3 bridles lowering the rover itself and an umbilical cable carrying electrical signals between the descent stage and rover. At roughly 7.5 meters below the descent stage the "sky crane" system slows to a halt and the rover touches down. After the rover touches down it waits 2 seconds to confirm that it is on solid ground and fires several pyros (small explosive devices) activating cable cutters on the bridle and umbilical cords to free itself from the descent stage. The descent stage promptly flies away to a crash landing, and the rover gets ready to roam Mars. The planned "sky crane" powered descent landing system has never been used in actual missions before.
Proposed landing sites
The essential issue when selecting an optimum landing site, is to identify a particular geologic environment, or set of environments, that would support microbial life. To mitigate the risk of disappointment and ensure the greatest chance for science success, interest is placed at the greatest number of possible science objectives at a chosen landing site. Thus, a landing site with morphologic and mineralogic evidence for past water, is better than a site with just one of these criteria. Furthermore, a site with spectra indicating multiple hydrated minerals is preferred; clay minerals and sulfate salts would constitute a rich site. Hematite, other iron oxides, sulfate minerals, silicate minerals, silica, and possibly chloride minerals have all been suggested as possible substrates for fossil preservation. Indeed, all are known to facilitate the preservation of fossil morphologies and molecules on Earth. Difficult terrain is the best candidate for finding evidence of livable conditions, and engineers must be sure the rover can safely reach the site and drive within it.
The current engineering constraints call for a landing site less than 45° from the Martian equator, and less than 1 km above the reference datum. At the first MSL Landing Site workshop, 33 potential landing sites were identified. By the second workshop in late 2007, the list had grown to include almost 50 sites, and by the end of the workshop, the list was reduced to six;  in November 2008, project leaders at a third workshop reduced the list to four landing sites.
On August 20, 2009, NASA sent out a call for additional landing site proposals. The new proposals will be evaluated and reviewed until the summer of 2010. A fourth landing site workshop, taking both the new and existing proposals into account, is planned for September 2010. The fifth and final workshop is planned for March 2011.
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