By Mary O’KEEFE
On Friday Curiosity took its first steps across the “clean floor” at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. To be more accurate the future Mars rover rolled across the floor.
Scientists and engineers working on the Mars Science Laboratory, named Curiosity, are preparing for its launch in 2011. At present it is in the clean room that is liken to a nursery where the rover is protected from outside germs and contaminants.
“The wheels were put on two to three weeks ago,” said Joy Crisp, project scientist for the Mars Exploration Rover Mission.
The rover will be a rolling science laboratory on the surface of Mars. Some of the instruments on Curiosity are a Mastcam that does stereo color imaging, ChemCam that will do chemistry and micro imaging, a lens imager that will do close-up imaging and a sample analysis to measure organic compounds and isotope chemistry in rocks.
This is not your mama’s rover. It is bigger than Spirit and Opportunity, the twin rovers that have been returning scientific data to Earth for six years. Those twins were about the size of a golf cart; Curiosity is the closer to a Mini Cooper. And it won’t be landing on inflatable balloons like earlier rovers.
“It is a sky crane landing,” Crisp said.
The landing plan is to have the spacecraft that is carrying the rover land using a parachute to slow it down. The back shell of the spacecraft will breakaway and the rover, attached by cables to a flying crane with thrusters, will be lowered to the surface.
“It will be a much softer landing. The [descent] will be less than two miles an hour at touchdown,” Crisp said.
Once safely on the surface the rover will immediately begin its scientific mission.
Before arriving at JPL Crisp, a geologist, had studied volcanoes. She switched from studying lava flow on Earth to lava flow on Mars. Studying geology on Mars does add some frustration, like not being able to touch the rocks she is analyzing, but Crisp said that is not too much of a deterrent. After all she had studied volcanoes that she could not enter and had to rely on data from probes.
“It all becomes part of the game. Its like a puzzle,” she said.
What she is looking forward to is going beyond the science of Spirit and Opportunity. Scientists will be looking beyond the signs of water to the building blocks of life, to assess if Mars ever had an environment capable of supporting microbial life.
The landing area has not been determined yet. As of now there are four primary spots scientists are looking at for the landing. Crisp is hoping to be able to study a Martian surface not yet explored. The rovers have sent back pictures of a surface that is rocky however Mars has much more to offer. With the help of Martian orbiters, a surface that is comprised of clay minerals called phyllosilicates is an area of interest for Crisp.
“This would be good [to study] and help us understand the past environment,” she said.
The launch is scheduled in late 2011 with an arrival on Mars in August 2012. As Curiosity prepares for its future, Opportunity continues its journey to Endeavor crater. After six years on the surface of Mars, Opportunity continues to explore and send back data. It has been doing so with a wounded arm.
“It is like having a stiff arm. It limits what we can do,” said John Callus, project manager for the rovers.
Opportunity has a boost of power thanks to wind clearing its solar panels. The future does not look as rosy for Spirit however. The little rover that has gone through so much, from a broken wheel to low power and Martian sand storms, is now stuck in the dust and is silent.
The rover has been stuck in fine sand for over a year. There were attempts to move Spirit but they were not successful. The upside (at JPL there is always an upside): the rover had gotten it stuck in one of the most scientifically rich areas. Scientists were thrilled to just sit and study. But now after another harsh Martian winter, Spirit is not responding.
“We have not heard from Spirit. We are starting a new strategy of sleep and beep to send commands to the rover to [see if Spirit] will respond back with a beep command,” Callus said.
The theory is that the rover’s mission clock may have faulted due to low power. It simply lost track of time so even if Spirit woke up it wouldn’t know it was time to talk to JPL.
The last time they heard from the rover was March 22, 2009. The hope with the winter behind them is the sun will power the rover’s solar panels and Spirit will phone home.