Launch of the new Martian Rover

Lift-off on Saturday 26th November 2011

The big space news this week, of course, is the launch of the Mars Science Laboratory mission which blasted off from Cape Canaveral on Saturday using an Atlas V launch vehicle.

Destination Mars: Gale Crater

Carrying the big new Martian rover, Curiosity (named by a schoolgirl as part of a competition), it is due to arrive at its landing site, Gale Crater, sometime in August 2012.  The mission is designed to see if Mars could, or has ever, hosted life.

The Curiosity rover hangs beneath the lander

Landing on Mars is tricky.  The atmosphere is too thick to use purely a rocket descent (like the Lunar Module) but too thin for conventional parachutes.  The Rover and its lander  will use a combination of both.  The rover will be lowered to the Martian surface by the new sky crane system which hasn't been used on a mission before.  After parachuting through the atmosphere, at about a mile above the surface the rover and the lander will seperate from the protective aeroshell in which they have travelled from orbit.  The lander will fire its hydrazine rocket thrusters and slow the descent. The rover will be lowered by the sky crane system until it hangs around 25 feet below the lander. A soon as it is confirmed that the rover is on the surface the lander will sever the connections to the rover and fly off to one side for a crash landing.  This sounds like proper space exploration but there does seem to be an awful lot that could go wrong.  Anything involving cables and explosive severing systems sounds like a recipe for disaster!  Let's hope not!

Mock-ups of the Mars Exploration Rover (Spirit and Opportunity 2004-2010) left, Mars Pathfinder (Sojourner 1996) centre and the Mars Science Laboratory (Curiosity 2012-2014) right showing size comparison

The rover, which can move at about 30 metres an hour, is designed to operate for 686 days, which sounds like an odd amount but is actually the length of a Martian year.  Curiosity is much bigger than previous rovers.  The original tea tray sized Sojourner rover weighed 11.5 kilos and was 65 centimetres long.  Curiosity weighs 900kg and is 3 metres long; about the size of a small car.  Sojourner is about the size of one of Curiosity's wheels. It is about five times the size of the more recent Mars Exploration Rovers.

This picture of technicians working on Curiosity at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory gives an idea of its scale.  It will be the biggest vehicle to land on another body in the Solar System.  It is about the same length as the Lunar Rover but is more than four times the weight.

Those fun loving scientists have cut the initials of JPL in Morse code into the vehicle's wheels so it will literally leave a trail of their name across the Martian landscape.

Its all engagingly science fiction -like, although it seems a long way from the Edgar Rice Burroughs Martian novels which Triple P read when he was younger.

Bruce Pennington's evocative cover for the New English Library paperback of A Princess of Mars (which Triple P still has up in the loft somewhere)

Actually, there is a strange connection between the Curiosity rover and the Burroughs novels.  Avatar director James Cameron was working with the JPL team on a 3D camera for the Curiosity rover but, sadly, they couldn't get it ready in time.  Cameron himself has admitted that one of his major influences on Avatar was A Princess of Mars! 

James Cameron (right) and the Curiosity rover camera team

There is a big budget film of A Princess of Mars due out next year; although they have re-named it John Carter, after the hero, but the trailer we have seen so far doesn't look brilliant. In fact, we prefer the look of the low budget Princess of Mars which came out two years ago.  Dejah Thoris, the princess in question, is far too overdressed in the new version, for a start, which is the downside of having Disney behind it!   But, who knows, maybe Curiosity will find a crashed Martian flier.
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