Photo Gallery: Last look at NASA's car-size rover before trip to Mars
August 15, 2011 — NASA's next Mars rover, the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) named Curiosity, has passed its functional tests and is now being packed to fly to the Red Planet this November.
On Saturday (Aug. 13), engineers at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida began folding up the six-wheeled, nuclear-powered rover to pack it inside its heat shield. The work follows the successful completion of a final set of tests designed to put the car-size rover through its paces.
"We just wrapped up our last functional test of the vehicle," said Dave Gruel, MSL assembly, test, and launch operations (ALTO) manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "Our functional test campaign included things like showing the vehicle can successfully go and do our entry, descent and landing phase, get down to the surface and actually deploy the arm, deploy the mast, take images, things of that nature."
Over the weekend, technicians folded down Curiosity's high-gain antenna, which will enable the rover to communicate directly with Earth. They also locked down for launch the rover's remote sensing mast, which supports Curiosity's two stereo navigation cameras used for driving and two science instruments to investigate its surroundings.
Over the next two days, Curiosity's instrument-tipped arm will also be latched for launch. Capable of reaching out more than 7 feet (2 meters), the arm will be used collect and study samples of the Martian surface.
Finally, technicians will replace Curiosity's six wheels with new ones for flight and tuck them under the rover.
"[We] just fold them up, like a little insect," said robotics engineer Torsten Zorn.
Once all the folding, stowing and tucking is complete, Curiosity will be ready to be mated with its descent stage and then sandwiched between a tightly-packaged cruise stage and aeroshell that will protect the rover on its eight-and-a-half-month trip to Mars. That spacecraft will then be placed inside a protective shell called a fairing and eventually stacked atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket for launch.
"We all realize that the finish line's upon us with respect to getting Curiosity ready to launch. We're all really confident we've exercised [the rover] to the best of our ability and what's next up for Curiosity is getting down to the surface of Mars and showing us what she's capable of doing," said Gruel.
Targeted to liftoff from Cape Canaveral on the day after Thanksgiving (Nov. 25), Curiosity was shown off to the media on Friday inside the clean room where it had been undergoing its final tests and preparations for its journey to Mars.
Photos: collectSPACE.com / Robert Z. Pearlman
Above: NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), named Curiosity, as seen fully deployed on Friday, Aug. 12, 2011 during a media photo opportunity inside Kennedy Space Center's Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility in Florida.
Above: The next time the Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory be in this same configuration — wheels deployed and remote sensing mast and instrument-tipped arm extended — will be after it is deposited on the surface of Mars in August 2012.
Above: At 10 feet (3 meters) long, Mars Science Laboratory has been likened to the size of a Mini Cooper. Curiosity is about twice as long and five times as heavy as NASA's twin Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, which launched in 2003 and are still on the Martian surface.
Above: Curiosity will carry the most advanced payload of scientific gear ever used on Mars' surface, a payload more than ten times as massive as those of earlier Mars rovers. MSL's assignment: Investigate whether conditions have been favorable for microbial life and for preserving clues in the rocks about possible past life.
Above: The Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) inherited many design elements from the earlier Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity, including six-wheel drive, a rocker-bogie suspension system and cameras mounted on a mast to help the mission's team on Earth select exploration targets and driving routes. Unlike earlier rovers, Curiosity carries equipment to gather samples of rocks and soil, process them and distribute them to onboard test chambers inside analytical instruments.
Above: Curiosity has ten "eyes." Six engineering cameras aid in rover navigation and four cameras perform science investigations. Four black-and-whte hazard avoidance cameras ("hazcams") are mounted on the lower portion of the front and rear of the rover; two black-and-white navigation cameras ("navcams") and two science cameras ("MastCam" and "ChemCam") are mounted on the remote sensing mast (the rover's "neck and head"); one "true color" descent imager and one "hand lens," which will provide close-up views of the minerals, textures and structures in martian rocks and the surface layer of rocky debris and dust.
Above: Curiosity's "ChemCam" (protected here by the red cover) will fire a laser to analyze the composition of vaporized materials from areas smaller than 1 millimeter on the surface of rocks and soils. ChemCam will also use the laser to clear away dust from Martian rocks.
Above: Curiosity's Mast Camera ("Mastcam") will take color images and color video footage of the Martian terrain. The images can be stitched together to create panoramas of the landscape around the rover. Like the cameras on the Mars Exploration Rovers that landed in 2004, the Mastcam design consists of two camera systems mounted on a mast extending upward from the rover's deck. The Mastcam will be used to study the landscape, rocks, and soils; to view frost and weather phenomena; and to support the driving and sampling operations of the rover.
Above: Curiosity is equipped with both low-gain and high-gain antennas to serve as both its "voice" and its "ears." Not only will the rover be able to send messages directly to Earth, but it will also be able to uplink information to other spacecraft orbiting Mars, utilizing mainly the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter as a messenger who can pass along news to Earth for the Mars-bound rover. The orbiter can also send messages to the rover. In this photo, the high-gain antenna is the hexagon-shape instrument in the center faced away from the camera. The low-gain antenna is the coffee-can shape instrument mounted on the platform at the rover's rear.
Above: At the end of Curiosity's seven-foot arm is a turret, shaped like a cross. This turret, a hand-like structure, holds various tools that can spin through a 350-degree turning range. At the tip of the arm is the turret structure on which five devices are mounted. Two of these devices are in-situ or contact instruments known as the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS) and the Mars Hand Lens Imager. The remaining three devices are associated with sample acquisition and sample preparation functions.
Above: Mounted at the end of Curiosity's arm, the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) will take extreme close-up pictures of rocks, soil and, if present, ice, revealing details smaller than the width of a human hair. It will also be able to focus on hard-to-reach objects more than an arm's length away. Also mounted on the arm, the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS) will determine the relative abundances of different elements in rocks and soils.
Above: The Mars Science Laboratory has six wheels, each with its own individual motor. The wheels are designed to roll the rover over obstacles up to 25 inches (65 centimeters) high and to travel distances up to 660 feet (200 meters) per day on the Martian terrain.
Above: This mock license plate won't fly with Curiosity to Mars but represents that NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., manages the Mars Science Laboratory mission.
Above: Curiosity will next be integrated with its descent stage, seen here, which will take it to the Martian surface. The rover will use a bold, new landing system. Like Viking, Pathfinder and the Mars Exploration Rovers that came before it, Mars Science Laboratory will be slowed by a large parachute. As the spacecraft loses speed, rockets will fire, controlling the spacecraft's descent until the rover separates from its final delivery system, the sky crane. Like a large crane on Earth, the sky crane touchdown system will lower the rover to a "soft landing" — wheels down-on the surface of Mars, ready to begin its mission.
Above: Once mated to its descent stage, the Mars Science Laboratory will be placed inside its aeroshell that will protect Curiosity during its deep space cruise to Mars. The hatchway opening in the aeroshell will allow engineers access a few days before launch to install the rover's power source, a radioisotope power system that generates electricity from the heat of plutonium's radioactive decay. This power source gives the mission an operating lifespan on Mars' surface of at least a full Martian year (687 Earth days, or 1.9 Earth years).