Move over, Spirit and Opportunity: There's a new Mars rover on the planet as of August 2012.With its six-wheel drive, rocker-bogiesuspension system和 mast-mounted cameras, it might resemble its venerable predecessors, but only in the way a pickup truck resembles aHumvee。We're talking about anuclear-powered,laser-toting monster truck of science, complete with rocket pack -- a steal at $2.5 billion (tax, title, docking and freight fees included).
该Mars Science Laboratory, akaCuriosity, dominates the Mars rover showroom, stretching twice as long (about 10 feet, or 3 meters) and built five times as heavy (1,982 pounds, or 899 kilograms) asNASA's record-setting 2003 models, Spirit and Opportunity.It comes off-off-road ready, with no hubs to lock (and no one to lock them).Six 20-inch (51-centimeter) aluminum wheels tear over obstacles approaching 30 inches (75 centimeters) high and rack up 660 feet (200 meters) per day on Martian terrain.
Ladies and gentlemen, the 2011 Curiosity packs more gadgets than a Ronco warehouse -- everything from gear for collecting soil and powdered samples of rock, to sieves for prepping and sorting them, to onboard instruments for analyzing them.Curiosity's laser is a tunable spectrometer designed to identify organic (carbon-containing) compounds and determine the isotope ratios of key elements.Best of all, its tried-and-true nuclear power system, long used insatellites, spacecraft and lunar equipment flown aboard the Apollo missions, is guaranteed not to leave you stranded in a dust storm.
Yes indeed, NASA went back to the drawing board for this one, dreaming up a fractal-like arrangement to pack the finest selection of compact scientific accoutrements into the smallest space possible.But don't take our word for it: Ask Rob Manning, flight system chief engineer at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who calls it "by far, the most complex thing we've ever built" [source:JPL]。
No effort was spared for NASA's most ambitious rover to date.This workhorse will conduct more onboard scientific research, using a larger suite of laboratory instruments and sensors, than any previous Martian model.Order today, and NASA will deliver it to within 12 miles (20 kilometers) of your door (some limitations apply;door must be within 250-million-mile (402-million-kilometer) delivery area).Your rover will land with more precision and cover more rugged ground than any other, and it will have the best chance so far of capturing the history of water flow and the possibility of ancient habitable environments on Mars.Yes, if Motor Trend magazine had a category for space buggies, Curiosity would no doubt garner Rover of the Year.
Now, why don't you let us hold onto your keys while you take it for a test drive?
From Blueprint to Bullet
Years of testing, development and building-in fault tolerances culminated at 10:02 a.m.EST on Nov.26, 2011, when the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station aboard an Atlas V rocket.It landed successfully on Mars at 1:32 a.m.EDT, Aug.6, 2012.
Before loading Curiosity into its shell, engineers subjected the rover to a rigorous series of tests simulating both internal faults and external problems, punishments that included centrifuges, drop tests, pull tests, drive tests, load tests, stress tests and tests of shorting circuits [source:JPL]。
Meanwhile,NASAhad to decide where the new rover would explore, how it would get there and how the space agency could land it safely -- easier said than done.
Earth和Marsrevolve around thesunat different rates -- 686.98 Earth days for Mars versus 365.26 for Earth -- which means their relative distance varies enormously.Reaching Mars on as little fuel as possible meant launching when the red planet passes closest to us [source:NASA]。This was no minor consideration: Mars swings out more than seven times as far from Earth at its farthest extreme (249.3 million miles, or 401.3 million kilometers) than at its nearest approach (34.6 million miles, or 55.7 million kilometers) [source:Williams]。
Like a quarterback throwing a pass, the launch system aimed not for where Mars was, but for where it would be when the craft arrived.NASA threw that pass, and the rover-football reached its round and red receiver more than 250 days later, and touched down on Sunday, Aug.6, 2012 (Eastern Daylight Time).
NASA did not "throw" MSL from Earth's surface, however;该机构推出了从行星轨道。这里的s how: Once the lifting vehicle reached space from Cape Canaveral, its nose cone, or fairing, opened like a clamshell and fell away, along with the rocket's first stage, which cut off and plummeted to the Atlantic Ocean.该 second stage, a Centaur engine, then kicked in, placing the craft into a parking orbit.Once everything was properly lined up, the rocket kicked off a second burn, propelling the craft toward Mars.
一种bout 44 minutes after launch, MSL separated from its rocket and began communicating with Earth.一种s it continued on its way, it made occasional planned course corrections.
Once it hit the Martian atmosphere, the fun really began.
一种 Noiseless, Patient Rover
WithinMars, rising higher than Mount Rainier towers above Seattle, stands a sediment mountain 3 miles (5 kilometers) high.Composed of layers of minerals and soils -- including clays and sulfates, which point to a watery history -- these layers will provide an invaluable map of Martian geological history [sources:Siceloff;Zubritsky]。
Pastwaterwould have flowed toward and collected in Gale's lowlands, making it a likely repository for the remains of streams, pools and lakes, and therefore an ideal place to find evidence of Mars's past habitability.
Like Walt Whitman's "noiseless patient spider," Curiosity will one day soon stand isolated on a promontory, sending back data from which its mission controllers will decide "how to explore the vacant vast surrounding." Its spidery resemblance does not end with poetic license or even its spindly, jointed legs, however;it extends to the spiderlike way the rover landed on the Martian surface.
Before we unravel that, however, let's look at therocket-assisted jump the craft made when it first reached Mars.
When the spacecraft carrying Curiosity swung into the Martian atmosphere 78 miles (125 kilometers) above the ground, it steered and braked through a series of S-curves like those used by the space shuttles.During the minutes before touchdown, at around 7 miles (11 kilometers) up, the craftpopped a parachuteto slow its 900 mph (1,448 kph) descent.It then ejected its heat shield from the bottom of the cone, creating an exit for Curiosity.
该 rover, with its upper stage clamped to its back like a turtle shell, fell clear of the cone.一种 few moments later, the upper stage's rim-mounted retro rockets blasted to life, stabilizing the pair into a hovering position about 66 feet (20 meters) above the surface;from here, the upper stage acted as a sky crane, lowering Curiosity like a spider on silk.Once the rover was safely on the ground, its tether was cut, and Curiosity set off on its journey [sources:NASA;JPL]。
Shortly before touchdown, theMars Descent Imagertook high-definition color video of the landing zone.This footage aided with landing and provided a bird's-eye-view of the exploration area for researchers and mission specialists back home.一种nother array of instruments, theMars Science Laboratory Entry, Descent and Landing Instrument Suite, will measure atmospheric conditions and spacecraft performance.NASA will use this data when planning and designing future missions.
该 novel landing system was more complicated, but also more precisely controlled, than any before, enabling mission planners to bull's-eye the long-desired target of Gale Crater.Landing within Curiosity's 12-mile (20-kilometer) target area within the crater would have been impossible for Spirit and Opportunity, which needed five times as much area when bouncing down in their space-age bubble wrap.This success opened up a slew of desirable sites, including steep-walled craters previously off-limits due to their tricky terrain.
Curiosity will also lay the groundwork for future missions, just as previous Mars jaunts made the new rover's expedition possible.Such missions could include scooping up rocks and flying them back home, or carrying out more far-reaching surface surveys, seeking evidence of Martian microbial life and its key chemical ingredients [source:NASA]。
Now that we've landed safe and sound, let's take a look at what kind of equipment comes standard with the Mars Science Laboratory package.
Whether packing for a two-week vacation or provisioning for a scientific expedition in a hostile desert millions of miles away, the basic problem remains the same:
What to bring, what to bring ....
Unlike a terrestrial tourist, who can pop down to the corner store to replace a forgotten toothbrush, Curiosity is utterly on its own.When there's no repair crew on call, no spare parts in the trunk and every signal fromEarthtakes around 14 minutes (as of August 2012) to reach you, self-reliance is all you have.
Curiosity isn't onMarsto sightsee, however.It's tasked with collecting rock and soil samples and placing them into onboard instruments for analysis.有鉴于此,探测器配备了 7-foot (2.1-meter) camera mast and a 7-foot, three-jointed robotic arm sporting more attachments than anindustrial vacuum cleaner。ThisSample Acquisition/Sample Preparation and Handling Systemwill scoop, dust, drill, powder, collect, sort, sieve and deliver samples to a variety of analytical assets [sources:JPL;NASA;Webster]:
Curiosity's neck, or mast, is also decked out in instrumentation:
Beyond these sample-analysis instruments, the rover also packs scientific gadgets that will examine local conditions, which could prove relevant for future human missions or understanding the planet's capacity for supporting life:
- 该中子反照率动态仪器可检测的氢 - 高达3英尺（1米）的表面之下 - 冰或水截留在矿物质的潜在指标。
That's an impressive array of luxury appointments, but it won't doNASAmuch good unless Curiosity's got it under the hood.Let's take a peek at what powers this puppy.
该 "monster truck of science" isn't a nitro-burning, fire-breathing funny car, or a plain oldinternal-combustion gas-guzzler。Nor does it sport thesolar panelsthat generated juice for its forerunners.No, on this mission, NASA went nuclear.
Curiosity pulls power from plutonium-oxide.一种s the radioisotope decays, it gives off heat, which the rover converts toelectricityusingthermocouples。ThisMulti‐Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG)will keep the rover's battery topped off with 110 watts of electrical power.
该 system packs more power than the solar approach and has no moving parts to break, but can this generator outperform good old gallium-arsenide panels?一种fter all, Spirit operated until the spring of 2010, and diehard Opportunity is still spinning itsodometer, having racked up 21 miles (34 kilometers) at 328 feet (100 meters, roughly an American football field length) per day.该se exceptional vehicles far exceeded their 90-day mission mandates, partly because of free, renewable, solar power.
Well, don't nuke the nuke just yet.该 radioisotope system's 14-year life expectancy could outlast the rover itself, and will never fall victim to the whims of Martian weather, dust or winter [source:JPL]。Besides, the extra power is worth the tradeoff: Curiosity will cover more ground than its predecessors, traveling at roughly twice their speed.In the single Martian year (about 687 Earth days) of its initial mission, it will rack up 12 miles (19 kilometers) inside Gale Crater, carrying a scientific payload 10-15 times more massive than Spirit or Opportunity.Power will remain available all along, as will excess heat that Curiosity will use to keep its vital instruments warm [source:NASA]。
Helping Curiosity put that horsepower to effective use is NASA's old-and-improved roverrocker-bogiechassis (see sidebar), an assembly of jointed titanium tubes attached to six aluminum wheels so thin they flex like rubber.一种ll four corner wheels can rotate through 90 degrees, which enables the rover to turn in place.Engineers beefed up Curiosity's suspension somewhat to suit its new role as landing gear, and to accommodate a heftier vehicle that must cross more rugged terrain [sources:哈灵顿;JPL]。
Shortly after landing, that chassis will cart the rover to its first destination: a rocky outcrop nicknamed "the fence." NASA targeted this crag because previousMarsobservations revealed that it containsaqueous deposits-- minerals formed in water.From there, Curiosity will venture into canyons, rocky mountainsides and hill country reminiscent of Sedona, Arizona's red rocks, which also formed in a watery environment.By then, its first Martian year will have come and gone.
From there, the rover will delve into rockier and more rugged terrain.Exploring this area will require several years, but, once across, the rover's cameras will be treated to a panorama of the path Curiosity has traveled [source:NASA]。
一种ll along the way, the Mars Science Laboratory will investigate whether conditions exist, or have ever existed, that could support microbial life on Mars, and whether clues to such life remain preserved in Mars's rocks and soil.
Curious for more info on Mars and how to get there?Bump on over to the links on the next page.
More Great Links
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- NASA喷气推进实验室。“火星科学实验室登陆网站：盖尔陨石坑。” July 22, 2011.（12月7，2011）http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/multimedia/videos/movies/msl20110722/msl20110722.pdf
- NASA喷气推进实验室。“火星科学实验室任务动画。” (Video).2011年4月4日。（12月五，2011）http://Mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/multimedia/videos/movies/msl20110722/MSLanimation20110721-640.mov
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- NASA喷气推进实验室。“天空起重机”。 (Dec.5，2011）http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/mission/technology/insituexploration/edl/skycrane/
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- 韦伯斯特，盖伊。“课程优秀，调整缓行。” NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.十二月1，2011。（12月8，2011）http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/msl/news/msl20111201.html
- 韦伯斯特，盖伊和德韦恩·布朗。“美国航空航天局准备租车尺寸火星车的11月推出。” NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.十一月19，2011。（12月9，2011）http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.cfm?release=2011-347
- 威廉姆斯，大卫R.“火星情况表”。 NASA National Space Science Data Center.十一月17，2010。（12月7，2011）http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/planetary/factsheet/marsfact.html
- Zubritsky，伊丽莎白。“着陆现场专家。” NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.十月18，2011。（12月7，2011）http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/news/whatsnew/index.cfm?FuseAction=ShowNews&NewsID=1164