Today in History – August 5, 2012 – Curiosity Mars Rover successfully landed on the Mars surface.
Curiosity is a six-wheeler much like Spirit, Opportunity and Sojourner. Unlike these earlier Mars rovers, however, Curiosity had one of the most complicated spacecraft landing systems ever designed due to its large size and weight. The landing used the largest supersonic parachute every build. The landing also used Curiosity’s mobility system as landing gear when rocket-powered down to the Martian surface on a tether called a “sky crane” (upper left image).
I was honored to have served on the Advisory Board for the Engineering Division at JPL and was impressed with their “faster, better, cheaper” approach to space exploration. At the invitation of JPL’s Director Charles Elachi, I watched Curiosity’s launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida on November 25, 2011 and captured photos of the event. The photos above are from JPL’s mission control and briefing on August 5th. The photo on the left shows me with the test version of the Mars Rover Curiosity. The one on the right (with my husband Dale Gieringer) was taken during the “seven minutes of terror” waiting to see if the entry, descent and landing were successful. See NASA’s simulation of these “seven minutes of terror”. The event also included a number of celebrities. Will.i.am did a press conference with Astronaut Leland Melvin (who has over 560 hours in space) to encourage more kids to go into science. Will.i.am walked into to our briefing room as well to watch. He was definitely more stylish than the other scientists and engineers in our room. We also saw Star Trek’s original communication officer, Lieutenant Uhura – actress Nichelle Nichols. She has worked with NASA to help recruit women and minorities for the shuttle program.
Curiosity is the latest of several successful Mars rovers developed by JPL. On August 12, 1997 – the Sojourner Rover (above), carried by the Pathfinder spacecraft, rolled onto the Mars’ surface. Click on the image above right to see a video of its initial positioning. Sojourner was designed as a six-wheeler that used a rocker-bogie suspension system; each wheel having its own drive motor, and the corner wheels also have independent steering motors.
Launched on December 4, 1996, Pathfinder impacted the surface of Mars earlier on July 4, 1997 at a velocity of 18 m/s (40 mph) and then bounced into the air 15 times at a maximum height of 15 meters (50 feet), before rolling and coming to rest 1 km from the initial impact site. The lander and landing site was named the Carl Sagan Memorial Station. Pathfinder was designed, built and operated by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) for NASA.
The project ended on March 10, 1998 when the lander failed to respond to communicate with controllers at JPL. The mission operated three times longer than its original 30-day planned lifetime.
The images from Pathfinder-Sojourner are spectacular, ranging from videos of Martian sunsets (click on image above left to see movie), data on the composition of the Martian rocks and the role of water on Mars. Quoting from a NASA press release of June 29, 1998:
The current assessment of data from this instrument suggests that all of the rocks studied by the rover resemble a type of volcanic rock with a high silicon content known on Earth as andesite, covered with a fine layer of dust. All of the rocks appear to be chemically far different from meteorites discovered. on Earth that are believed to have come from Mars.
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s other Mars rovers – twin rovers called Spirit and Opportunity – landed on January 4, 2004 and January 25, 2004, respectively. They were originally scheduled to operate for three months, but are now in their sixth year of hard work. The rovers have set the longevity record for broadcasting to Earth from a distant planet. Although Spirit got stuck in sand, Opportunity has been traveling towards the Endeavour crater on Mars since August 2008. With all emphasis on the Curiosity launch and landing, the Opportunity’s drive to Endeavor was halted, but JPL/ NASA reports it will resume driving soon.
For more information, see the Engineering Pathway‘s resources on Mars rovers. For related educational resources, visit the Aerospace Engineering Education, Mechanics Engineering Education, Computer Engineering Education or the Mechatronics Engineering Education Community sites.