Why Curiosity is a big deal

7 08 2012

With all the great press coverage of Curiosity, Cosmoboy’s family asked one unexpected question: “Why is there so much fuss about Curiosity when there have been a bunch of other Mars rovers?”

Although the “Countdown to Curiosity” articles detailed all of Curiosity’s amazing scientific apparatus, the articles didn’t really put into perspective how much better Curiosity is than the other Mars rovers (Sojourner, Spirit and Opportunity). So let’s right that wrong!

Sojourner landed way back in December 1996! I was actually studying for my PhD at the time, but there was a lot of great press coverage. It was perhaps the first space mission to really use the internet effectively. But for all the communication successes, Sojourner didn’t really have a great suite of scientific instruments. Given it’s small size, just a little over 10 kg and only 60 cm long, there wasn’t all that much space for scientific payloads. The key scientific instrument (other than cameras) was an Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer for determining the elements in rocks (Curiosity has a much more advanced one). But what many people remember about Sojourner was how slow it moved: it had a top speed of a little over 0.5 cm a second! But there again, this mission was put together on one tenth the budget of Curiosity.

The twin Spirit and Opportunity rovers came next, landing in January 2004. Like Sojourner, they both carried an APXS, but this time they came with more sophisticated spectrometers to make even better assessments of the precise elemental components of the Martian rocks and minerals. Much larger in size, at 185 kg and around 1.6 metres long, they were much more capable of carrying a heavy payload. They also had the advantage of a robotic arm so they could get in close and even abraid the surface of rocks to see what was lying underneath (the RAT tool!) But perhaps what everyone remembers about Spirit and Opportunity was their “Energizer Bunny” impressions – they just kept going and going! With it’s solar cells still operational, Opportunity is still working today after having covered almost 22 miles! Spirit got stuck in a dusty soil area in 2009 and unfortunately sent its last communication on 2010.

Fast forward to today’s super-rover: Curiosity! Now we’re talking about a 900 kg vehicle roaming about, which is capable of carrying half the total mass of Spirit in scientific experiments alone! NASA likes to use the analogy that Curiosity is about the same size as a Mini-Cooper. In terms of the scientific experiments, the list is pretty amazing (Curiosity is the first rover with a laser): ChemCam (remote sensing, including the laser, for chemistry) APXS, ChemMin (for mineraology and chemistry), SAM (detailed sample analysis), RAD (radiation assessment),  DAN (for detecting ice near the surface), REMS (for monitoring Martian weather) and not to mention a whole bunch of cameras! All in all, Curiosity is leaps ahead of went before it! It should truly help us understand the Martian geology and mineralogy in unprecedented detail.

Hopefully, that makes it clear why Curiosity is so important for studying Mars. It’s scientific designation, “Mars Science Laboratory” puts into perspective what this mission represents – a true suite of lab experiments on the surface of Mars!

And one last image to leave you with – a shot of all three rovers compared (but not on Mars!)





Countdown to Curiosity: Landed!

6 08 2012

Congratulations to the Curiosity team! I’ve put a capture of the very first image downloaded from the surface to the left. Hard to believe after the months of flying through interplanetary space that Curiosity is on Mars!

The NASA website has already gone down with everybody trying to download the initial images, but keep trying! News coming in by the second – they’ve just managed to get things going again.

A press conference is schedule for 11:15 Pacific, but just to keep the info flowing, here’s what we said about the landing in the blog:

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Imagine hurtling toward a planet at tens of thousands of kilometers an hour. Your millions of miles away from the Earth and there’s no human pilot to plot a course once you’re inside the atmosphere to avoid any unexpected events. Sounds pretty risky, yeah? And it is… Beagle 2 was the last surface mission to fail (and we think we found the wreckage), but just four years earlier two missions, Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander, both failed as well. If you want statistics, NASA has landed on Mars successfully five (yes only five) times! And when it comes to Curiosity, the landing procedure that’s been chosen is more complex than any other mission before it…

While the Apollo missions entered into orbit around the Moon, Curiosity is going to slow down from interplanetary speeds without this step. In this sense its landing will be somewhat similar to the Apollo “splashdowns” on Earth. Thus Curiosity is going to hit the Martian atmosphere travelling at over 20,000 km per hour, and again, just like the Apollo missions, the spacecraft carrying Curiosity has a heat shield underneath to protect the rover from the extreme heat (a peak of 2100 C) produced in re-entry. All the steps that follow are given on this great graphic provided by NASA:

Once into the atmosphere Curiosity will begin a series of maneuvers at several times the speed of sound, before deploying its parachute while still at supersonic speeds. This part of the descent is anticipated to go pretty well. Supersonic breaking parachutes have been used since the Mercury missions in late 1950s early 1960s so the technology is nothing new.

But once Curiosity has descended to about 1.8 km above the surface, and is travelling at aroud 400 km per hour, it will separate from the parachute and begin a powered descent. In about 40 seconds it will be down to just 20m above the Mars surface, and then perhaps the most risky part of the whole mission begins: lowering to the surface on the end of a “sky crane”. Curiosity can’t just be “dropped” – it’s too heavy at almost 1 ton in mass. Once the sky crane is fully deployed the spacecraft will slowly descend down at about 0.75m per second. Once it detects that Curiosity is on the ground it will cut the lines on the crane and fly away at least 150 m away from the rover.

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Update: 10:45 am (ADT) still waiting for those images from MARDI showing the descent! :)





Tracking Curiosity

28 11 2011

Just a very quick post today, and one that’s a tad frustrated… I’ve been searching on line for a website that shows how far Curiosity is from Mars. If you go to the JPL mission website it will tell you how many days (great!) but I’m looking for something that tells you the distance. And so far I’ve found nothing… De nada. So I’d appreciate hearing from anyone who’s seen something like this on line.

In principle this isn’t too hard to do. You really only need a computer program that calculates the orbital trajectories of the Earth, Mars and Curiosity. Working out the distance from this model is actually easy. To set the model up you need the orbital positions and speed of all three of them. The Earth and Mars can be found easily, Curiosity seems a tad harder. I’m guessing it must be on line somewhere?

What you can find online is Curiosity’s position on the sky as it heads to Mars. JPL has it’s incredibly useful solar system data accessible through the HORIZONS on-line system. While I’ve not been able to figure out (yet!) how to get it to give me the orbital data I want, I have been able to use it to plot Curiosity’s celestial coordinates for the next month (these are for Halifax, Nova Scotia). While I’m not suggesting anyone go out and look, here are the next 6 days for fun:

Date__(UT)__HR:MN R.A._(ICRF/J2000.0) DEC

2011-Nov-28 00:00 08 19 14.59 -00 25 54.0

2011-Nov-29 00:00 m 08 21 53.08 +00 24 00.4

2011-Nov-30 00:00 m 08 22 59.29 +00 46 26.5

2011-Dec-01 00:00 m 08 23 33.30 +00 59 40.4

2011-Dec-02 00:00 m 08 23 51.82 +01 08 43.7

2011-Dec-03 00:00 m 08 24 01.34 +01 15 34.3

This area on the sky is between the constellations Hydra, Monoceros and Canis Major. Utah amateur astronomer Patrick Wiggins took this series of images on the morning of November 27th one day after launch (you can see Curiosity moves from frame to frame in the middle of the image)

As an added bonus HORIZONS will also tell you some additional data about Curiosity:

* Spacecraft
Mass: 3,893 kilograms total at launch,
2,401-kilogram EDL system (aeroshell + fueled descent stage)
539-kilogram fueled cruise stage

Cruise vehicle (cruise stage, aeroshell, w/rover & descent stage)
Diameter: 14 feet, 9 inches (4.5 meters)
height: 9 feet, 8 inches (3 meters)

Rover name: Curiosity
Rover dimensions:
Length: 9 feet, 10 inches (3.0 meters) (not counting arm)
Width: 9 feet, 1 inch (2.8 meters)
Height at top of mast: 7 feet (2.1 meters)
Arm length: 7 feet (2.1 meters)
Wheel diameter: 20 inches (0.5 meter)
Mass : 899-kilogram rover
Power: radioisotope thermoelectric generator & lithium-ion batteries

OK, so I’m sure I can probably hunt through the data from HORIZONS to figure out the trajectory, and then figure this all out! I’m sure, however, that the trajectory file is probably accessible somewhere, as it’s quoted in the data from HORIZONS as “msl_spk_cruise_1126-1502-tzero_v1_dsnsch”. It’s out there… Somewhere… Time to do some digging…





Curiosity Rover: Cruising on the Deep Space Network

27 11 2011

After all the excitement of yesterday’s launch, things are going to be fairly quiet until August. But Cosmoboy thought it would be fun to take a little look at Curiosity’s trip to Mars. How far does it have to go? How is the steering accomplished? How do we stay in contact?

Communicating with spacecraft is not easy. As the recent Phobos-Grunt disaster shows, once you lose contact getting it back is tough. The Earth’s rotation also means you can’t just rely upon one communication facility as every few hours it’s going to be pointing in the wrong direction. So you need a bunch of dishes dotted around the world. And that’s exactly what NASA’s Deep Space Network is, a system of three stations separated by 360/3=120 degrees apart on the Earth. There are dishes in:

Goldstone, in the Mohave Desert in California. The Goldstone facility actually contains five antennas, the biggest of which is the recently refurbished 70m “Mars” antenna. The name of this antenna actually comes from the face that it was first used to pick up the Mariner 4 spacecraft which had been lost by smaller antennas during its Mars fly-by. Since that time the dish has tracked Voyager 2 as it passed Uranus and Neptune as well as Spirit and Opportunity on Mars.

Robledo de Chavela, Spain which is about 60 km west of Madrid. (Note, the website is in Spanish, so unfortunately I couldn’t delve into as much detail as I hoped, and ironically it looks much better than the Goldstone website!).  This facility also has five antennas, including a 70m dish that weighs 8000 tons. Like the other two facilities, the receivers sit in an area that is somewhat bowl  shaped to shield it (as much as possible) from terrestrial radio interference.

Tidbinbilla, Australia which is about 30 km from Canberra (love the cows, this is farm land!). This station has the smallest number of active antennas, at three. Like the other two it’s largest dish is also 70m. Some film buffs probably remember the movie “The Dish” with Sam Neil, actually this facility isn’t the one referenced there. That was Honeysuckle Creek, which closed in 1981. In fact, there were once seven tracking stations across Australia.

Steering Curiosity is a bit like driving using your rear view mirror. The spacecraft relays signals back to the Earth and then course adjustments are sent back. Curiosity isn’t really looking for Mars or piloting toward it directly, instead that’s being handled through the DSN. Importantly, it has to be done with great accuracy, believe it or not sunlight will “push” Curiosity during it’s flight to Mars, and this needs to be taken into account (you don’t want to wind up hundreds of km off course). What’s more, by the time Curiosity reaches Mars and enters the atmosphere it needs to know very precisely where it is, any errors in position could be disasterous.  There’s only 70 kg of propellant to make course corrections, i.e. two tanks of gas in a 350 million mile journey!

Depending upon the precise launch time, NASA had a bunch of different possible trajectories all laid out. As it happens, Curiosity launched bang on the number one launch time of 10:02 am EST. With the trajectory laid out, it’s now a matter of tracking and making sure all the thruster burns happen on time. If you’re wondering, the thrusters are actually pretty low power, they have only 1 lb of thrust. Some of the maneuvers thus take hours of burn.

But by and large, getting Curiosity to Mars is routine. It’s been done before. And as I keep reminding everyone, the landing is where things get interesting!





Curiosity Launch: It went like clockwork!

26 11 2011

Congratulations to everyone involved with the Mars Science Laboratory launch!

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Curiosity launched today at 10:02 am (Update: according to a NASA Kennedy tweet the official liftoff time was 10:02:00.211 a.m. EST – how’s that for precision!?) on a partly cloudy but otherwise good day at the Cape. The weather threatened to put things off early in the day with a little bit more rain than expected in the area, but otherwise things seemed to go really well. It was actually pretty funny to hear a NASA weather forecast that mentioned the incoming cosmic ray flux: “The proton flux is within bounds”. You don’t hear that on CBC! :)

Omar Baez, the NASA Launch Manager, commented

“…All the right things that they wanted to do in those crucial few minutes happened like clockwork.”

“The Atlas and Centaur were flawless. They got us to where the satelite needed to go we hit the window right at the beginning and everything appears nominal for the flight.”

During the countdown they focused closely on the wind and some of the rain bearing clouds in the area, but there was nothing of note to report other than a small couple of telemetry issues.

The interplanetary injection burn, and separation of the Curiosity spacecraft from the Centaur rocket all seemed to go perfectly from the vantage point of the onboard camera on the rocket (you could see the happy faces in the control room!) Can’t find a video of this on line yet… Update! Here it is. The spacecraft was picked up by the Deep Space Network just minutes later.

You can see the whole launch sequence here – it was just a perfect lift-off on a great day for flying!

Relief! (If I feel that way, I can’t begin to feel how good all the scientists and engineers that have worked for years on this project must feel!) Now we wait 8 months for Curiosity to make it’s way to Mars. Inertia and gravity are in control of the spacecraft now. But… when it gets close to Mars, things get really interesting





Countdown to Curiosity: today’s the day!

26 11 2011

Weather update: Looking good! Low wind, partly cloudy.

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This morning Cosmoboy realized that one important piece of equipment hadn’t been covered in the “Countdown” series: the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS). This is Canada’s contribution to Curiosity’s instrument suite! APXS was built in Richmond B.C. by MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd and the Principle Investigator is Dr Ralph Gellert at the University of Guelph. Dr Gellert actually designed a previous version of the instrument for Spirit and Opportunity, so he’s a bit of a star of the Canadian space instrumentation scene!

OK, so what does APXS actually do? Basically, APXS is an instrument for determining precisely what elements are present in a given sample. To do this APXS will rely on two techniques, Particle-Induced X-ray Emission (PIXE) and X-ray Fluorescence (XRF). PIXE relies upon the fact that fast moving alpha particles can knock electrons from the lowest energy levels of atoms right out of the atom itself. This leaves an atom with an unstable configuration of electrons, and one of the electrons in the high energy levels of the atom will now drop down to the low level one, emitting an X-ray as it does so. APXS has a detector to capture these X-rays and we can determine the elements in the sample by looking at the energy of the X-rays – each elements emits X-rays with very specific energies, an energy signature if you like. PIXE is good for detecting lighter elements, essentially sodium through to calcium.

APXS contains Curium 244 as a source of alpha particles. But it also decays into Plutonium 240 (one of the tracer elements people have looked for in tracking Fukushima emissions) which emits X-rays that can in turn excite X-ray emission in other atoms. This is called X-ray Fluorescence and the idea is pretty much the same as PIXE, accept instead of alpha particles causing the excitation, this time it is incoming X-rays. The two methods turn out to be very complementary though as XRF is good for detecting heavier elements, calcium through to zirconium.

OK, so that’s the science behind APXS. For it to work effectively you have to be able to get close to the sample. So the emitter and detector part of APXS sits on the end of Curiosity’s robotic arm while the main electronics are back in side the body of the rover. The APXS on Curiosity is also 3 to 6 times better than the ones on Spirit or Opportunity. It will take data much more rapidly, and quick tests for a few specific elements can be done in as little as 10 minutes – it used to take several hours. It can even take data during the day as well, because a special active cooler has been added.

The main science goals of APXS are similar to that of CheMin – to understand the elemental composition of Martian geology, what elements are present and in what concentrations? The high precision of APXS will also allow it to look for any local anomalies in elemental abundances, which will help pinpoint interesting areas for further sampling with SAM. There is also a possibility of combining results with CheMin to find X-ray invisible compounds like bound water or carbonates.

How expensive was APXS to build? I’ll present this in a way that puts the investment in context. Curiosity’s overall budget is about 2.5 billion dollars. Canada’s gross domestic product is about 1/10th that of the US. So if we collaborate on a project with the US, you would anticipate that we might contribute about 10% of the overall cost, or around $250 million. Well, we didn’t do that, so about half that, say $100 million? Nope, I may as well cut to the chase, we spent $17.8 million. OK, so that’s still a good sum of money, but from an international perspective it’s a pretty minimal investment: 0.6% of the overall mission cost. I’ve written at length about the funding for the Canadian Space Agency and how low it is, and that’s true regardless of which party is in power. Although things are about to get notably worse as the CSA budget is to be cut by almost 25% beginning in 2013. But at least we’re involved, it could be worse.

APXS is a great instrument, and you can be sure that once it starts taking data on Mars there’s going to be a lot of interesting new discoveries!

T-minus one hour and counting…. Go Curiosity!





Countdown to Curiosity: 1 day to go!!!

25 11 2011

Weather update: it continues to look good for a launch tomorrow morning. The chance of rain is now down to 10%.

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This is the final post in the “Countdown” series. Tomorrow Curiosity will begin its long journey to Mars. While the launch is a nerve wracking time for anyone involved, perhaps the most scary part of the mission is the landing. Curiosity will attempt to land on Mars using a method that’s never been used before: lowering down to the surface using a crane from a platform that is hovering under rocket power. If that sounds like it’s difficult to do – it is! NASA has a really neat movie of how it is all supposed to work.

Let’s quickly talk about the landing site first. Many of you will recall that during the Apollo missions the lunar module was piloted down to the surface. Neil Armstrong was actually seconds away from running out of fuel while he looked for a good place to put down Apollo 11, imagine what a disaster that could have been… Without the benefit of a human pilot, Curiosity needs to land in a region that’s relatively free of hazards. Fortunately, a series of surveyor satellites has given us incredible knowledge of the surface of Mars and the chosen site of Gale Crater has both good landing areas as well as a lot of interesting geography (including an alluvial fan likely deposited by water carrying sediments).

But let’s get back to the interesting bit, the landing procedure itself. Imagine hurtling toward a planet at tens of thousands of kilometers an hour. Your millions of miles away from the Earth and there’s no human pilot to plot a course once you’re inside the atmosphere to avoid any unexpected events. Sounds pretty risky, yeah? And it is… Beagle 2 was the last surface mission to fail (and we think we found the wreckage), but just four years earlier two missions, Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander, both failed as well. If you want statistics, NASA has landed on Mars successfully five (yes only five) times! And when it comes to Curiosity, the landing procedure that’s been chosen is more complex than any other mission before it…

While the Apollo missions entered into orbit around the Moon, Curiosity is going to slow down from interplanetary speeds without this step. In this sense its landing will be somewhat similar to the Apollo “splashdowns” on Earth. Thus Curiosity is going to hit the Martian atmosphere travelling at over 20,000 km per hour, and again, just like the Apollo missions, the spacecraft carrying Curiosity has a heat shield underneath to protect the rover from the extreme heat (a peak of 2100 C) produced in re-entry. All the steps that follow are given on this great graphic provided by NASA:

Once into the atmosphere Curiosity will begin a series of maneuvers at several times the speed of sound, before deploying its parachute while still at supersonic speeds. This part of the descent is anticipated to go pretty well. Supersonic breaking parachutes have been used since the Mercury missions in late 1950s early 1960s so the technology is nothing new.

But once Curiosity has descended to about 1.8 km above the surface, and is travelling at aroud 400 km per hour, it will separate from the parachute and begin a powered descent. In about 40 seconds it will be down to just 20m above the Mars surface, and then perhaps the most risky part of the whole mission begins: lowering to the surface on the end of a “sky crane”. Curiosity can’t just be “dropped” – it’s too heavy at almost 1 ton in mass. Once the sky crane is fully deployed the spacecraft will slowly descend down at about 0.75m per second. Once it detects that Curiosity is on the ground it will cut the lines on the crane and fly away at least 150 m away from the rover.

Amazingly, all this is going to be filmed. The MARDI descent camera will take 4 images per second during the maneuvers. If it all works, this is going to be one heck of a movie!

So, one day to go for the launch… Can’t wait for Curiosity to begin its journey!!!








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