Skip to content

Nuclear Powered Geologist on Mars!

6 August 2012

Nuclear Powered Geologist on Mars!

Curiosity’s camera boom extends 2.1 meters/6.9 feet above the surface at professional basketball player height — NASA/JPL-Caltech illustration

NASA officially terms their latest extraterrestrial rover to land on the Red Planet the Mars Science Laboratory — but it is widely known as Curiosity. It is the size of a small car, like the MiniCooper, and literally weighs a ton (909kg).

Curiosity is twice as long, five times the mass with ten times the mass of science instruments as either of the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Science and engineering evolves as more facts and experience are gathered so Curiosity raises the bar not only with its more sophisticated instrumentation but also it power source.

An artist’s imagination allows us to see Curiosity travel with Spirit  — NASA/JPL-Caltech illustration

Since it has been determined that water once ran freely on Mars scientists are searching for evidence that Mars once supported life. The search is by exploring for chemistry within the rocks and soil that can support carbon based life as we know it as well as mineralogy altered by life forms.

NASA has purposely landed Curiosity on one of the lowest elevations on Mars, the Gale Crater, near its rim and inside of it where water should have been. Later, Curiosity will make its way to the crater’s central structure Aeolis Mons (informally known as “Mount Sharp”) to study the outcrops likely to be present there. It does not appear to be a central uplift structure (a characteristic of an impact) but may be 2 billion years of sedimentary rock — layers upon layers of it — eons of the geological history of Mars. Curiosity is the latest, largest and most competent geologist to yet arrive on Mars.

Pioneer Aerospace built Curiosity’s parachute which had severe design constraints like holding as much air as a large house, hold 36,000kg (80,000 lbs) and deploy at supersonic velocities after traveling a very long time (80 suspension lines, each 50m/165 feet long, with a 17m/55 foot opening diameter) — NASA/JPL-Pioneer Aerospace photo

Curiosity’s landing schematic — NASA/JPL-Caltech illustration

Curiosity’s mass demanded a more sophisticated landing than bouncing airbags and a more sci-fi method than the one chosen is hard to imagine. Shallow entry into the atmosphere followed by a parachute-borne descent — normal enough — then followed by a rocket powered hover whereupon the Curiosity was lowered by a sky crane. After two seconds on the surface the sky crane/descent stage executed a fly away maneuver to crash well away from the rover. This left Curiosity firmly on the planet with the least amount of dust blown about or man-made obstacle challenges such as a ramp partially resting on a rock.

Artist’s  interpretation of Curiosity under parachute after jettisoning  of the aeroshell — NASA/JPL-Caltech illustration

Artist’s  concept of  how Curiosity looks while being lowered by the hovering descent stage/sky crane (hydrazine power the rocket engines) — NASA/JPL-Caltech illustration

A nuclear power unit (radioisotope thermoelectric generator or RTG) is providing the electricity required for the motors and instruments with the residual heat keeping everything warm enough to continue working through the Martian winters (a first). The power source is a non fissile isotope of plutonium, 238Pu, which primarily emits alpha particles with no need for additional shielding around the casing.

0132 hours EST: touchdown confirmed

0135 hours EST: imagery being transmitted

Curiosity has traveled well and everything from computers to dozens of pyrotechnic charges appears to have worked perfectly to set the biggest and most capable extraterrestrial explorer on Mars! Congratulations to the multitudes of all those involved 🙂

Best of all — data from places no person has yet seen for many years to come!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 7 August 2012 10:14

    Delighted that ‘Curiosity’ is headed towards Mount Sharp! (For obvious reasons!)

    • travelforaircraft permalink*
      7 August 2012 11:43


      Why is that I miss when I write what I would easily see when I read?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: