CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla — NASA is going through what could be dubbed a “summer of planetary exploration.” With the Juno mission to Jupiter launched Aug. 5, NASA is prepping two more missions, this time to terrestrial bodies, the Moon and Mars.
If one had to select which of these missions has the most “celebrity” status – few, if any, can compete with the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) or Curiosity. The six-wheeled rover was part of a media event Friday Aug. 12 that included the “Sky-Crane” jetpack that is hoped will safely deliver the car-sized rover the Martian surface. Also on display was the back half of the rover’s aeroshell which will keep the robot safe as in enters the red planet’s atmosphere.
An interesting aspect of MSL is how the rover will land. As it pops free of the aeroshell, a jet pack will conduct a powered descent to Mars’ surface. From there the rover will be lowered to the ground via wires, making Curiosity look like an alien spider descending from its web. Once the rover makes contact with the ground, the wires will be severed and the “Sky-Crane” will fly off to conduct a controlled crash. Although there has been some concern regarding the complexity of this new landing system, engineers made sure to note that vehicles have made powered descents to the Martian surface before – both of the Viking Landers as well as the Mars Phoenix Lander arrived at Mars in this way.
MSL is slated to launch this November atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V 541 rocket. If everything goes according to plan the rover will begin exploring Mars’ Gale Crater for a period of approximately two years. The other upcoming planetary mission is the Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory or GRAIL which is scheduled to launch on Sept. 8.