Mars Science Laboratory – Curiosity

This morning the massive Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) launched torwards Mars.  Scheduled to land in August 2012 the rover will bring a host of scientific instruments to the planet and continue the exploration that started in 1975 with the Viking landers.

Mars Science Laboratory (MSL)

By far the largest rover every launched to another planet the MSL is a risky mission.  The rover is five times bigger and carriers more than ten times the mass of scientific instruments than the MER rovers.  In additional MSL will attempt the first precision landing on Mars, which will be achieved by a sky crane that will lower the rover to the surface before flying off and crashing into the surface.

Unlike it’s predecessors, which were solar powered, MSL will use an radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs).  This will allow the rover to operate day and night and also has the advantage that the heat generated by the process can be used to keep the components warm meaning more electricity will be available to the instruments.

Once on the surface the rover will wake up and begin it’s mission, designed to operate for at least a martian year (668 Martian sols/686 Earth days) MSL will using it’s various scientific instruments to determine the habitability of Mars for microbial life.

MSL is carrying an impressive array of instruments which will enable it to take samples of Martian rocks and analyze them.  Rather than repeat the information I have included a link to the Mars Science Laboratory site.

The plan is to land MSL at Gale Crater which spans 96 miles (154 kilometers) in diameter and holds a mountain rising higher from the crater floor than Mount Rainier rises above Seattle. Gale is about the combined area of Connecticut and Rhode Island. Layering in the mound suggests it is the surviving remnant of an extensive sequence of deposits. The crater is named for Australian astronomer Walter F. Gale.[1]

Now all we have to do is wait until next August when Curiosity lands.

Sources
1 – http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.cfm?release=2011-222#1

Mars Exploration Rovers

Tomorrow NASA will be launching the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) to begin an eight month journey to the red planet.  Today we take a look at it’s predecessors the highly successful Mars Exploration Rovers.

Mars Exploration Rovers (MER)

Launched in 2003 the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity were sent to explore the surface and geology of Mars.  The two rovers were launching within a month of each other and used an airbag landing to arrive on the surface of Mars eight months later in early 2004.

Each rover was designed to operate for 90 sols (Sol is a day on Mars, which is almost 40m longer than a day on earth).  The rovers far exceeded there designed life with Spirit finally giving up after ~2208 sols.  Opportunity is still operational today over 2777 sols after arriving on the planet.

The rovers have provided a wealth of information from the surface of Mars and have demonstrated that we can operate in distant environments for extended periods of time.

While the rovers have been active for a long time they certainly have had some luck along the way and have to rest during the winter months due to not having enough solar energy to charge the battery.

Several times during the mission NASA noticed that the power levels on the rovers suddenly increased having declined due to the buildup of dust on the solar panels.  They determine later that these were because of wind gusts called dust devil’s that had hit the rover cleaning off the dust, this was confirmed in 2010 when Opportunity spotted a wind gust (dust devil).

Since arriving on the planet each of the rovers has sent back a large amount of pictures,  including panoramic views of the environment around the rover.  These images are available on NASA’s Mars Rover web site.

We don’t know how much longer Opportunity will operate for, soon it will enter it’s next winter hibernation period.  However as long as it has power, is communicating and NASA has funding we can expect more from the amazing rover.

Opportunity's View Approaching Rim of Endeavour Crater