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NASA's Next Mars Rover 104

Posted by Soulskill
from the would-do-well-on-battlebots-too dept.
An anonymous reader writes "In August 2012, the NASA rover Curiosity is scheduled to touch down on the surface of Mars. The size of a small car, it's four times as heavy as predecessors Spirit and Opportunity, and comes with a large robot arm, a laser that can vaporise rocks at seven meters, a percussive drill and a weather station. Oh, and 4.8kg of plutonium-238. Wired has some high-resolution photographs from lab that is putting the next rover together." Curiosity's destination on Mars has reportedly been chosen: Gale Crater. The 150-kilometer wide depression 'includes a tantalizing 5-kilometer-high mound of ancient sediments, [and] may have once been flooded by water.' The Planetary Society blog has a couple of additional pictures and a time-lapse video of the delicate, lengthy process of preparing the lander for transport. Curiosity will launch near the end of 2011. No cats were harmed during its construction.
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NASA's Next Mars Rover

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  • I'd figure he'd be out campaigning against the RTGs with plutonium in them.

    • I'm glad somebody besides me remembers Kaku's graduate-level derp [lovearth.org] campaign. Hopefully his restless-knee syndrome has improved since then, or at least his statistics and risk-assessment skills have.

      • Thanks for the link. It's got to be the only time on record - ever - really EVER - where Michio Kaku has said something completely and utterly forehead-smackingly, drool-inducingly ridiculous, laughably scientifically dishonest and hyperbolically absurd. Usually every word that comes out of his mouth is so balanced, well-informed, rigorously thought-out, carefully argued, and of course, completely and utterly plausible.
        • by Man On Pink Corner (1089867) on Monday July 04, 2011 @09:16PM (#36656874)

          Heh, I can't tell if you're being sarcastic or not, because I haven't followed his work since the Cassini episode. But before that, he actually was a decent science writer, someone who could bring leading-edge physics down the mountain and talk intelligently to the people who are asked to fund it.

          That's why I was so disillusioned when he went off the deep end. Science desperately needs good communicators like Kaku... and it needs them to not go full retard.

          • You're not sure if I'm being sarcastic or not? Really?

            Kaku is a hack and an attention whore. He'll say anything if it gets him more screen time.
          • by elrous0 (869638) *

            Michio Kaku is to physics what Dr. Drew is to the medical profession.

            • by gblackwo (1087063)
              I have respect for Dr. Drew. He created a completely new format for helping people. They were comfortable calling a late night radio show anonymously but were embarrassed to see a doctor.
        • by Wyatt Earp (1029)

          I emailed him the morning Cassini launched and asked what next, he said he was going to keep fighting the fight against RTGs in space.

          • I emailed him the morning Cassini launched and asked what next, he said he was going to keep fighting the fight against RTGs in space.

            Good for him! Every RTG in space is another one that isn't being used to power something vital here on Earth.

    • by node 3 (115640)

      Something people seem to misunderstand about this is that the concern is that rockets are known to fail at launch. It's a *huge* failure point. The consequences of such an event shouldn't be ignored.

      Statistically, the radiation risk seems below the threshold of concern, but it's not distributed like one would think. With plutonium especially, it only takes a very small amount to be breathed in or ingested to essentially guarantee cancer. If it were to pass through the body completely, it wouldn't be a big d

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        The consequences of such an event shouldn't be ignored.

        And they weren't. End of story.

        Everything else you wrote is either wrong or completely irrelevant. There are no lessons from Chernobyl and Fukushima that can be applied to RTGs, and no analogies between them can be drawn except for ones comparing apples with spoons.

        RTGs don't work even remotely like a nuclear reactor of any type, well-engineered, poorly-engineered, or otherwise. It's not clear that plutonium is as dangerous [state.co.us] as people have been told i

        • by node 3 (115640)

          The consequences of such an event shouldn't be ignored.

          And they weren't. End of story.

          No, *not* end of story. They still launch RTGs, in spite of the real risks involved. They didn't "ignore" the risks completely (they did shield the reactors), but they still went ahead with these launches, even though there are risks involved.

          Everything else you wrote is either wrong or completely irrelevant. There are no lessons from Chernobyl and Fukushima that can be applied to RTGs, and no analogies between them can be drawn except for ones comparing apples with spoons.

          The lessons are that you can't engineer away disaster. Not a single thing ever invented is disaster-proof (in fact, there have been some notable "disaster-proof" inventions famously succumbing to disaster. Raise your hand if you can name two). Nuclear reactors are apt

          • by bertok (226922)

            No, *not* end of story. They still launch RTGs, in spite of the real risks involved. They didn't "ignore" the risks completely (they did shield the reactors), but they still went ahead with these launches, even though there are risks involved.

            Of course they did, because at the cutting edge of engineering and human achievement nothing is risk free. Asking people to stop doing risky things is just stupid, because it's not going to happen. There's an acceptable level of risk, and everybody with any common sense accepts it, because the benefits are worth it.

            Harping on about a 1 in 10^20 chance that you'll personally die from some rocket launch is simply insane, because you have something like a 1 in 10^8 chance of being killed every time you drive t

          • First off, that's absolutely false. They *are* nuclear reactors. However, I'll cut you some slack on that and assume you meant that they aren't similar in danger to traditional large-scale nuclear power plants. This is true, but I've never claimed otherwise.\

            I am pretty sure you have no idea what the hell you are talking about at this point. RTG's are not nuclear reactors. They use the excess heat shed by nuclear material to drive an electric current through semi-conductive materials. There is no nuclear reaction being sustained, they simply use the natural half-life of the material contained within them to provide energy. That's all. For more details please read Chapter 6, section 4.2.1 of Vincent L. Pisacane's Fundamentals of Space Systems, Edition II, aptly

            • Also, sorry for the typos. I am still working on this morning's coffee.
            • Nice try, but something tells me he's not going to read Fundamentals of Space Systems or anything else that's not written on a purple-and-black web page that somehow survived both the Geocities and AOL Hometown purges. As for him and his house, they will follow the Precautionary Principle... all the way back to the caves, if necessary.

      • by cusco (717999)
        RTGs have been involved in multiple launch failures without any breach of radioactivity, ever. Generally they're fished out of the ocean (or tundra), dusted off, get new connectors soldered on, and are re-used.

        Even if the unprecedented occurs (shit happens) and one breaks open there still is no public health issue. The plutonium in the RTG is a chunk of metal, and you'd have to be a pretty determined individual to manage to ingest it. I suppose you could pick it up and swallow it and thereby die, bu
      • You should probably look up the failure/success rate of the Atlas V rocket (the actual launch vehicle that will be carrying MSL) before you go off on some sort of rant about how dangerous rockets are.

        From one point of view, you are right: rockets, in general, are complex, chaotic, dangerous machines.

        From another point of view, (the one that I would say is most applicable) your explanation is nearly pointless. The Atlas V vehicle has a nearly spotless track record. The few failures that did occur were
  • Oh, goody! (Score:5, Funny)

    by mrsam (12205) on Monday July 04, 2011 @07:35PM (#36656420) Homepage

    Oh, and 4.8kg of plutonium-238

    Oh goody! My explosive space modulator has finally been delivered! Now I can blow up Mars. Because it's obstructing my view of Jupiter!

    • by dlb (17444)

      Where's the kaboom?

    • by Tackhead (54550) on Monday July 04, 2011 @08:30PM (#36656672)
      The Council of Elders has confirmed an alarming increase in threatening chatter originating from the blue world.

      K'Breel, Speaker for the Council of Elders, addressed the planet thus:

      AT LAST, the denizens of the blue planet expose their true intentions! No mere "explorers", these foul robotic beings. Despite their deceptive code names, these invaders from the blue world are no innocent space-mariners; they're Vikings! All they seek is an opportunity to wipe not only us from the world, but the spirit of our world itself from the solar system.

      I have in my tentacle one particularly threatening communications intercept; hear the enemy in their own words.

      Oh goody! My explosive space modulator has finally been delivered! Now I can blow up Mars. Because it's obstructing my view of Jupiter!

      Despite what you may have heard from certain circles of subversives, their own words betray them. They are not just here for the sake of curiosity!

      K'Breel went on to confirm reports that the expected invader would indeed by powered by an advanced Pew-238 power source to extend its range and lifespan, K'Breel reminded all citizens that its expected capabilities would still be vastly inferior compared to their own recreational vehicles: "Our hot rods get a million klorbs to the frelpor; the blue planet ain't just across a minor tributary from Valles Marineris!"

      When a junior intelligence analyst suggested that the intercepted transmission in question was merely referring to an animated cartoon that was more than thirty years old, there was a gelsac-shattering kaboom. (It was described as "lovely".)

      A small robot dutifully removed the dust from the remains of the Speaker's disintegrating pistol and performed a short piece of traditional music while the Speaker exited the stage via an iris-shaped door after concluding his address with a brief "That is all, citizens."

    • by Snufu (1049644)

      NASA better keep a close eye on Curiosity's space modulator. Lapin earthlings have a tendency to steal them, which can cause "delays...delays".

  • by countertrolling (1585477) * on Monday July 04, 2011 @07:47PM (#36656476) Journal

    From #4:

    "If it works, it will be spectacular,"

    If it doesn't , it will probably be more so, but we won't see it.

  • by MobileTatsu-NJG (946591) on Monday July 04, 2011 @07:48PM (#36656486)

    ...a laser that can vaporise rocks at seven meters...

    I soooo want this on my car.

  • by MobileTatsu-NJG (946591) on Monday July 04, 2011 @07:51PM (#36656492)

    "...a laser that can vaporise rocks at seven meters..."

    Everybody making a hilarious post about sharks can press ALT+F4 to skip the 20 second limit!

  • This from one of the captions from an image (in bold).

    As the retro rockets control the landing speed, the descent stage will unspool tethers to lower the rover's wheels on to the surface. "If it works, it will be spectacular," says Grotzinger.

    "If" it works, glad they have such confidence in what they are doing...

    • Re:Classic comment (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Man On Pink Corner (1089867) on Monday July 04, 2011 @07:59PM (#36656536)

      Mars eats orbiters for lunch and landers for dinner, unfortunately. It's called "rocket science" for a reason. If we limited our efforts to sure-fire bets, we'd still be squinting through telescopes and wondering who dug the canals.

      I'm confident that if anyone can pull off a project this ambitious, the JPL folks can. If they fail, I'll be happy with raising my taxes by the $1.50/year it will cost to try again.

      • Re:Classic comment (Score:5, Interesting)

        by Nyeerrmm (940927) on Monday July 04, 2011 @09:11PM (#36656848)

        As an engineer, that skycrane contraption sets off my alarms of being an extremely complicated and scary solution. It lacks the simplicity of earlier landers with a sequence of chutes, retro rockets, and airbag expansions. Though still being single point failures, they were not actively controlled and could use simple backup timers to make sure everything deployed if at all possible. (Full disclosure: I'm a JPL engineer, but not in EDL and not working on MSL, and of course my opinions are purely my own).

        Of course for a mobile vehicle that large, I can't think of a better solution that could fit on a launch vehicle, so I'll give it the benefit of the doubt.

        Given that, though, if it fails, i doubt it would be resurrected. MSL already has a bad track record of delays and problems, and a reputation as a money sink (though not as bad as JWST). Also, I have a bias towards more smaller and cheaper missions (and as a deep space navigator, rovers are quite dull for me professionally) so I would actually rather have the money spent on more New Frontiers and Discovery class missions.

        • by Wyatt Earp (1029)

          Yea, but the tax payers like the pictures and the rovers.

          9 years to Pluto doesn't really have the same thrill as "It'll be on Mars next year!"

        • Re:Classic comment (Score:4, Insightful)

          by camperdave (969942) on Monday July 04, 2011 @10:54PM (#36657276) Journal
          My understanding (slight as that may be) is that the vehicle is too heavy to land by parachute in the thin Martian atmosphere.

          BTW, what did you think of the DIRECT architecture?
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          Yeah, I get butterflies thinking about this thing landing. I'm told that the skycrane has been tested extensively on Earth and the engineers involved are not any more worried about that than about the chain of other more mundane things that can go wrong between launch and instrument check-out in situ. As to previous elegant solutions, I think I would have been just as antsy about the beach-ball landing scheme of the MER had I been in the biz back then (disclosure: I'm a scientist at JPL).
      • Re:Classic comment (Score:4, Insightful)

        by Bob9113 (14996) on Monday July 04, 2011 @10:21PM (#36657148) Homepage

        "I'll be happy with raising my taxes by the $1.50/year it will cost to try again."

        So would I. Unfortunately they're going to cut our taxes by $1.50 and spend the money anyway.

    • by Kjella (173770)

      Well right now they'd be wise to lower expectations quite a bit. The previous rovers performed off the charts, this one might just perform to spec or worse. I'm guessing that as usually there's a long, long list of "never been done before" and you can only go so far in simulation. It's not really tested until it's tried.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        I'd bet they learned a lot about what the rovers did right last time around, and made it better this time. You'll notice they made it bigger which will let hit handle rougher terrain, and they switched the solar power supply to nuclear, which will give it power and some degree of extra heating.

        Assuming it survives landing I'm sure it will be great.

  • No Cats (Score:5, Funny)

    by SuperKendall (25149) on Monday July 04, 2011 @07:56PM (#36656522)

    "no cats were harmed during its construction".

    Well of course not. That would obviously come after activation. Good thing they are planning to send the malevolent entity to a feline-free Mars.

    • by Dunbal (464142) *
      They didn't mention puppies at all.
    • Cats have always been important to science. When you make a cation molecule with radioactive atoms, you effectively have 4.5 half lives.
  • "War of the Worlds"? It's payback time!

  • They need to paint that thing to look like a shark: Mars shark, with a fricking laserbeam
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Does it run Linux?

  • Let's give it an arm, a powerful laser, drill, some plutonium, and some AI so that it can operate somewhat autonomously... 6 months later... "Accident hits NASA lab when Mars rover refuses to be sent to Mars alone". That might happen. Really!
  • Curiosity will sport two identical single board computers (SBC's) for redundancy. The CPU's are radiation hardened variants of the PowerPC 750 that run at 200mhz. The single board computers sport 256k of EEPROM, 256mb of DRAM, and 2gb of flash and draw 10 watts. They can withstand 1,000 gray and temperature ranges between –55C and 70C. The boards have been in production since 2001 and are already running on a number of other NASA projects.

    It always amazes me that NASA gets by with 10 year old (or

  • A representative of space probe manufacturer in Colorado said that commercial Pu is becoming scarce, i.e. not being refined in the like the dwindling tritium supplies. The 24 pounds of plutonium in the Pluto New Horzion's RTG would cost $50M in today's prices. That is significant cost factor for NASA. Next month's Juno probe launch to Jupiter uses monster (60 feet) solar panels for the first time, partly for cost/availability reasons. Solar energy at Jupiter is 1/16th of Earth or about the distance limi
  • The early Mars mission were under Goldin's smaller-cheaper-faster program. Curiosity is 50% over budget and 26 months late. Much of this due to a new nuclear engine technology which could be useful for future probes. If it wasnt for the amazing resilency of Spirit (R.I.P.) and Opportunity, NASA would have had a major gap in it surface Mars program. Along with the Webb Telescope cost overruns, NASA is cutting its 2010s probe plans about in half what was earlier expected. And this before the anticipated Tea
  • Actually MSL is about six times the mass of an MER rover.
  • The Entry, Descent, and Landing phase are the part of the MSL technology that gets the least press but is the most critical for mission success, obviously. Unfortunately MSL is too heavy for airbags so a convoluted new technology had to be invented. The landing will be white-knuckled all the way...

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