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NASA Mars Space Science Technology

Cutting Edge Tech Slated For Next Mars Rover 143

Posted by timothy
from the seems-like-a-good-place-to-start dept.
oxide7 writes "NASA is pushing the boundaries of technology as it readies its next mission to Mars, loading up its 4th Mars Rover with nearly a dozen instruments and deploying an innovative but risky landing procedure. Scientists and engineers were piecing together some of the final components to the new rover, dubbed Curiosity, on Saturday as it ramps up for a high-stakes launch in November."
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Cutting Edge Tech Slated For Next Mars Rover

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  • wonder if there is a cat at the landing site?
  • From TFA: Parachute, followed by retro-rockets, then lowered by a tether.

    Yes, it's new. How do they measure how risky it is?

    • Risky = untested, unknown.

      If this method had a track record of success in some terrestrial application, then it would be new for a Mars mission, but would be perceived as less risky, because there would be less new science/design that would be required for it. Given that a rocket-powered skycrane has never been used over an extended period (at all?) in any terrestrial application, and that computer-controlled flying cranes are relatively new (anyone know of any deployed autonomous helicopter cranes?), it'
    • Well, considering that Spirit and Opportunity use a Parachute-Retro-Tether-Airbag system and they did fine, I think the simpler Parachute-Retro-Tether system would be less risky.
      • by milkmage (795746)

        I think they'd prefer to go with airbags, but it's too heavy. My car doesn't weigh half that.. imagine hanging 2 cars from a "sky crane" powered by retros.. as it speeds towards the ground at 1000 mph. if one of the retros fails or the tether snaps, it's game over. compare that with: inflate bags @ a reasonable altitude and hope you don't hit a sharp rock.

        Spirit weighs 500 pounds. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spirit_rover [wikipedia.org]

        Curiosity - FIVE TONS. "The five-ton mobile laboratory is slated to blast off onboard a

        • by Lumpy (12016)

          It's still 900X less risky than a full on Retrorocket landing like Viking.

          • by JamesP (688957)

            And still they did it.

            With very slow computers and very little memory

            Of course, if the Mars Atmosphere was thicker, they could have gone with a glider, parachute or something similar.

      • by rts008 (812749) on Sunday August 14, 2011 @05:52PM (#37089054) Journal

        They want to explore a crater, not make a new one.

        NASA engineers and 'rocket scientists' have already determined that the 5 ton rover is too heavy for that method.

        • by camperdave (969942) on Monday August 15, 2011 @01:11AM (#37091434) Journal

          They want to explore a crater, not make a new one.

          NASA engineers and 'rocket scientists' have already determined that the 5 ton rover is too heavy for that method.

          I think you misunderstand me. People fixate on Curiosity's skycrane, and think that it's new and overly complicated. It's not new. Everybody seems to forget that Spirit and Opportunity ALSO used a similar Parachute-Retrorocket-Tether system [youtube.com]. All they seem to remember is the airbag part of it. Spirit's and Opportunity's "skycranes" brought them to a hover in mid air and then cut them loose. They had to endure a drop equivalent to jumping off of a fourth floor balcony. This is why they needed the air bags.

          In contrast, Curiosity's "skycrane" is going to lower it gently to the ground, not drop it from 50 feet in the air. There's much less risk involved with Curiosity's landing than Spirit's or Opportunity's. So, given that the MERs not only survived their riskier skycrane descent, and plummet to the ground, but thrived, odds are high that Curiosity will do the same.

    • by PJ6 (1151747)

      From TFA: Parachute, followed by retro-rockets, then lowered by a tether.

      Yes, it's new. How do they measure how risky it is?

      It's risky because it's overly complicated. The God of our race is named Murphy, and he has but one law.

      I bet the flyer will sail off to "safely" ditch 3 miles away from the landing site, with the rover still attached.

  • Why not deliver this rover the same way the other rovers were delivered?

    • by amorsen (7485)

      Why not deliver this rover the same way the other rovers were delivered?

      Because it would make a nice crater that way. Nature is not scale-free.

      • Re:Why? (Score:5, Informative)

        by ColdWetDog (752185) on Sunday August 14, 2011 @04:41PM (#37088602) Homepage

        Yes. There is a nice explanation at the Curiosity site (I think) that goes through the various thought processes but basically, IIRC

        - The payload AND landing zone requirements made the rubber ball bouncing technique not viable
        - The unload off a ramp technique that the current rovers use doesn't scale well and has the major problem of failure if it lands on anything other than reasonably flat terrain. This limited the science and the landing site too much.
        - The retrorocket system has been used by Viking and the current rovers
        - The skycrane approach has a number of major advantages in terms of terrain avoidance, design of the rover, and size of payload at the expense of complexity.

        The teams apparently felt that the risks were worth the benefits. Basically, they felt that unless the technology was pushed forward, the science packages would be too limited.

        It is rocket science after all.

        • by khallow (566160)
          Or they could have reused the MER platform and these wouldn't have been issues in the first place. My view is that they are putting the cart before the horse with missions that have so many costly development hurdles.
          • Re:Why? (Score:5, Interesting)

            by ColdWetDog (752185) on Sunday August 14, 2011 @06:19PM (#37089256) Homepage

            No they could not. The MER (Mars Exploration Rover - Opportunity and Spirit) system can't land heavy payloads in a narrowly defined landing zone. Using that system, you get a landing ellipse of about 100 km2 area restricted to a band about 40 degrees above and below the equator (IIRC). For many, many interesting targets, that isn't good enough. You are also constrained to payloads about the same size as the baby rovers.

            Yes, you can argue that the next step should be dozens of MER craft landed in many different zones. That is certainly a valid argument and one that has been made. However, according to the nice rocket scientists that have studied this for years (as opposed to us armchair astronauts who study things for 10 minutes max), it was felt that more significant research needed heavier payloads delivered with better accuracy.

            I think there should be enough money in NASA's budget to fund both concepts (and Venus landers and Titan blimps and on and on) but I'm just a taxpayer.

            • Re:Why? (Score:4, Interesting)

              by khallow (566160) on Sunday August 14, 2011 @07:20PM (#37089664)

              The MER (Mars Exploration Rover - Opportunity and Spirit) system can't land heavy payloads in a narrowly defined landing zone.

              And it's worth noting that NASA doesn't have a need to land in a narrowly defined landing zone, at least one much more narrowly defined than the MER were already capable of landing in.

              That is certainly a valid argument and one that has been made. However, according to the nice rocket scientists that have studied this for years (as opposed to us armchair astronauts who study things for 10 minutes max), it was felt that more significant research needed heavier payloads delivered with better accuracy.

              I would feel the "need" for a couple of billion dollars too. Keep in mind that this is a rover with a fair bit of range, allegedly more than the MERs. Further, its target is the Gale Crater, which, according to Wikipedia, is almost 100 miles in diameter. You don't need a pin-point landing.

              As to "heavier instruments", It's worth noting that 8 or so MERs carry almost as much.

              Finally, we have to consider both the degree of risk, namely, this is a riskier mission than one using a proven vehicle, and the concentration of risk, namely, the eggs are all in one vehicle. It matters because NASA, due to the way it structures space science missions, only has a few slots going to Mars. Any accident sets them back by years since they don't have another vehicle deployed which overlaps with the mission's goals or capabilities.

              I don't need to be a rocket scientist to understand the problems with a mission approach.

              • by JamesP (688957)

                And it's worth noting that NASA doesn't have a need to land in a narrowly defined landing zone, at least one much more narrowly defined than the MER were already capable of landing in.

                Yeah, NASA doesn't know what they need...

                Remember, Opportunity drove 20Mi/30km in 7 years. If you miss your target by 10km, that's a lot of time you'll need.

                I would feel the "need" for a couple of billion dollars too. Keep in mind that this is a rover with a fair bit of range, allegedly more than the MERs. Further, its target is the Gale Crater, which, according to Wikipedia, is almost 100 miles in diameter. You don't need a pin-point landing.

                See point above. And you want to target the rim of the crater usually. That's where the interesting geological formations are.

                Finally, we have to consider both the degree of risk, namely, this is a riskier mission than one using a proven vehicle, and the concentration of risk, namely, the eggs are all in one vehicle. It matters because NASA, due to the way it structures space science missions, only has a few slots going to Mars. Any accident sets them back by years since they don't have another vehicle deployed which overlaps with the mission's goals or capabilities.

                Of course, that's why they're testing Curiosity to death. No one wants to see it fail. But there's so much you can do with an existing vehicle. Maybe they could launch 8 MERs with different instruments, but it's probably more wor

                • by tlhIngan (30335)

                  And Curiosity is a needed exercise on landing heavier and heavier things on mars.

                  It's a step in the evolution of exploration on Mars.

                  First was Sojourner, which was just shoebox sized - all it had to do was land and explore a bit to ensure things actually worked.

                  Then came Spirit and Opportunity - which are much bigger rovers - think washing-macine or so sized. Again its purpose was to explore Mars and prove that things could work.

                  Curiouslity is the largest of the lot (think SUV), and the old landing system w

                • by khallow (566160)

                  Yeah, NASA doesn't know what they need...

                  Correction: You don't know what NASA needs. As I pointed out, it's a big crater, they don't need to be precise.

                  Remember, Opportunity drove 20Mi/30km in 7 years. If you miss your target by 10km, that's a lot of time you'll need.

                  No reason that a) they couldn't work on the delivery system for MER to be a bit more precise and b) no reason other than unfounded assertions from NASA that the MSL delivers any more precisely than a modified MER system would.

                  Of course, that's why they're testing Curiosity to death. No one wants to see it fail. But there's so much you can do with an existing vehicle. Maybe they could launch 8 MERs with different instruments, but it's probably more work than it's worth. Less risky, sure, but maybe not so scientifically groundbreaking.

                  I see that you completely miss the point. Existing vehicles need less testing. So sure, there's less you need to do with them! As to scientific output, I think observing eight

                  • by JamesP (688957)

                    As I pointed out, it's a big crater, they don't need to be precise.

                    Tell that to NASA. It's clear you know jack shit a) the size of the crater, b) where they need to be

                    No reason that a) they couldn't work on the delivery system for MER to be a bit more precise and b) no reason other than unfounded assertions from NASA that the MSL delivers any more precisely than a modified MER system would.

                    Tell that to NASA. Or to the engineers that build it. Surely a ./ commentator has more answers than them.

                    I'm not bothering with the rest f your post. You have really shown you can't comprehend written words and that it's pointless to discuss with you.

                    • by khallow (566160)

                      Tell that to NASA. It's clear you know jack shit a) the size of the crater, b) where they need to be

                      It's a bit late for that. However, I guess I need to point out that this is a game that NASA and other federal agencies have played for decades. They invent phony needs and get them funded. The discussion should have been from the beginning, how to get more for the money, not meeting some bogus "need" that someone cooked up in order to obtain more funding.

                      Tell that to NASA. Or to the engineers that build it. Surely a ./ commentator has more answers than them.

                      Too late for that. We'll just have to see if the MSL works or not.

                      I'm not bothering with the rest f your post. You have really shown you can't comprehend written words and that it's pointless to discuss with you.

                      You could always just look at the past history of NASA and see for yourself. They had a

            • by khallow (566160)
              Since there was a lot of debate further on down the thread, I want to point out something important about the word "need" as it is used here. First, we don't need to explore Mars (even the intangibles which are often argued as being needed, such as inspiration to a generation of students, could be provided by cheaper, Earth-side sources). So fundamentally, there is no need.

              Second, NASA has complete control over the design and operation of missions aside from funding authority which resides with Congress.
    • This rover is about the size of a small car, so it is a wee bit harder to get onto the ground in one piece. Pics or it didn't happen? Here ye go: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Mars_Science_Laboratory_wheels.jpg [wikipedia.org]
    • by oxide7 (1013325)
      The article said because this weighs multiples of the previous rovers. Also there is a lot more sensitive lab equipment inside, i would imagine
    • by Nyeerrmm (940927)

      Airbags scale by a factor of ~2.5 with mass. MSL is much larger than the MERs. Thus it can't be landed with airbags and fit on top of a launch vehicle.

      The skycrane, ridiculous as it may seem, is probably really the best way to get something the size of MSL to the ground. Whether or not they wouldn't have been better off selecting a couple of MER sized machines is a different question...

    • Why not deliver this rover the same way the other rovers were delivered?

      They are delivering the rover the same way. They're just eliminating the "deploy the airbags and bounce around the planet for half an hour" part of the delivery, and are just placing the rover directly on the surface.

    • by milkmage (795746)

      why not RTFA?

      Because of its weight and sheer size, NASA cannot use the airbag padded rolling landing used for previous flights. Curiosity's landing will use a different method, lowering the rover on tethers from a rocket-backpack "sky crane."

    • by PPH (736903)
      Its too heavy for airbags. And the skycrane configuration has the advantage of a better view of thee terrain as it sets the rover down. Not to mention not kicking a bunch of crap up with retro rockets mounted on the rover and fouling its optics.
  • Piece of cake.
    This is an incredible approach at landing if it works everybody involved should and would feel proud of their work.

    If it fails you'll never hear about it anymore.

    Galileo Spacecraft it's never publicly mentioned in relation to the Shoemaker-Levy 9 impact on Jupiter.
    Yet it had a front roll seat, it watched the impacts, the fact it's high gain antenna wouldn't deploy
    meant it couldn't send pictures back.

    I watched one of the Mars bots do it's beach ball landings, they keep saying "still rolling" un

    • If it fails you'll never hear about it anymore.

      Unless it fails for some stupid reason like some metric/US unit mismatch in the code ...

  • So the Phoenix 2 will have Firefox 9?
  • From this story [marsdaily.com]:

    However, in February 2009, because of the late delivery of several critical components and instruments, NASA delayed the launch to a date between October and December 2011.

    This delay and the additional resources required to resolve the underlying technical issues increased the Project's development costs by 86 percent, from $969 million to the current $1.8 billion, and its life-cycle costs by 56 percent, from $1.6 billion to the current $2.5 billion.

    So roughly two thirds of the cost of the entire mission is in developing the technology and building one vehicle. One thing that is routinely ignored in discussions of space probes is the trade-off between cutting edge development and actual output of the space probe. For example, instead of building the Mars Science Laboratory and its gear, we could have sent around 8 Mars Expedition Rovers (the actual cost of building and launching a rover is somewhere around $300 million). You might not h

    • All of the technology was new and unproven at some point. If you keep trying at it, it becomes less new and more tested. It's the nature of the game. Also, MER is not proven, it just happened to succeed twice. Don't get me wrong, they were excellent successes, but it's just 2 for 2.
      • by khallow (566160)

        Also, MER is not proven, it just happened to succeed twice.

        And you are inherently wrong here. Successes are in the engineering parlance, "proofs" of a technology. Two successes are vastly more than zero successes.

        • Maybe you should brush up on basic statistics before calling others out on being wrong. It is feasible to have a experimental high success rate while having a low chance of individual success given that there are few enough trials. IOW you can't say with good certainty that any trial has a good success rate if you have too few previous trials to back it up, no matter their rate. TL;DR That's not proof.
          • by khallow (566160)

            Maybe you should brush up on basic statistics before calling others out on being wrong. It is feasible to have a experimental high success rate while having a low chance of individual success given that there are few enough trials. IOW you can't say with good certainty that any trial has a good success rate if you have too few previous trials to back it up, no matter their rate. TL;DR That's not proof.

            There are two things to remark on here. First, context indicates that the successes are more significant than you'd expect statistically. It is rather unlikely for aerospace failures to be in a certain range of likelihood. Usually things either fail with certainty or have a rather high success rate (at least 50%). That's just a rule of thumb, but borne out by a lot of aerospace history. So even one success of a very difficult mission profile (such as landing on Mars and deploying a rover for several years)

          • by JamesP (688957)

            And that's what you get by only looking at numbers.

            Yes, MERs ARE PROOF the project/concept works. You only need ONE success for that.

            If the project wasn't good you would have ZERO successes, no matter how many times you tried.

            Of course, if it's a good success rate, sure, you would need more samples. Still, if it worked twice, the success rate is much higher than you assume.

    • by Solandri (704621)

      One thing that is routinely ignored in discussions of space probes is the trade-off between cutting edge development and actual output of the space probe. For example, instead of building the Mars Science Laboratory and its gear, we could have sent around 8 Mars Expedition Rovers (the actual cost of building and launching a rover is somewhere around $300 million). You might not have gotten quite as nice a variety of scientific output for any given location as the MSL, but you'd get up to (counting the possi

      • by khallow (566160)

        IMHO, that is the point of NASA - to push the envelope of technological development in order to more rapidly create new innovative research methods and technologies, not to rest on its laurels and build a sustainable business model. The whole reason it's taxpayer-funded is because we expect lots of failures and for its returns to never directly pay for the initial investment. Bear in mind that NASA started off as NACA [wikipedia.org], whose goal was to centralize fundamental aerospace research. That way all companies could benefit from it, instead of each company wasting money conducting duplicate research to push the forefront of aviation. NACA itself didn't profit from its research.

        The point here is who is going to use this stuff when NASA moves on? A similar though much shorter tech development stretch happened leading up to the Apollo launch.

        In addition to the well-known manned aspect of Apollo and prior programs (Mercury and Gemini), we had several unmanned efforts including lunar orbiters and landers. In total, 21 unmanned space probes went to the Moon, to orbit it, collide with it, or gently land on it. While some of the unmanned stuff probably got used later on, it's still an

  • From the linked article: An instrument named ChemCam will use laser pulses to vaporize thin layers of material from Martian rocks or soil targets up to 7 meters (23 feet) away.

    I have this mental image of thousands of tiny terrified martians fleeing their homes after the "heat ray" vaporizes the town square.

    No-one would have believed, in the first years of the 21st century, that martian affairs were being watched from the timeless worlds of space. No one could have dreamed that we were being scrutinized as

    • by iggymanz (596061)

      in the first years of the 21st century

      amazing! let's see, 2000 * 1.88 = about 3760 years ago, Martian Jesus was born!

      • by iggymanz (596061)

        "except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish *Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator!"

        Note: In some early scriptural texts, also referred to as the Pu-36"

  • Please tell me they have a way of getting dust off the solar panels. Every time I read about dust buildup on Spirit and Opportunity's solar panels causing problems all I could think of was why didn't they install some type of simple vibration mechanism or air jet or any number of possible solutions.
    • by rts008 (812749)

      NASA has already explained this. It was not an oversight/mistake.
      The mission parameters only had a 90 day window.
      Why sacrifice weight, available space, and $$$ for features not needed for the job requirements.

      It's not like software, where added features above requirements adds value at little, to no cost.
      In this case, added features have a sever penalty to the requirements.

      • by Russ1642 (1087959)
        I've been reading more about MSL in the last few hours and I see that it doesn't use solar panels. Good. Not removing dust from the MER's solar panels was a mistake in hindsight. No question. They designed for a 90 d mission, but the mission changed. If every system had started to fail at the 90 d mark it really would have sucked, and they'd use the same tired excuse of "but we designed strictly to the mission parameters." It costs a fortune to send these to Mars so longevity is crucial, and the power sourc
    • Please tell me they have a way of getting dust off the solar panels. Every time I read about dust buildup on Spirit and Opportunity's solar panels causing problems all I could think of was why didn't they install some type of simple vibration mechanism or air jet or any number of possible solutions.

      Please tell me you have at least looked at the picture of the lander and realized it doesn't have any solar panels. Oh, wait, slap me. It's Slashdot....

  • by Anonymous Coward

    How are they going to manage if the tethering is right over a large boulder? Do they have software / radar to detect such things?

  • So...why the fuck are we still shooting rovers to Mars? Why aren't we going ourselves yet? We've seen it, sampled it, measured and tested every aspect we can...it's time to pay the rock a fucking visit, not shoot more meters and probes at it.

    Pull your heads out of your asses, government, and send a fucking human being to Mars already.

    • by Lumpy (12016)

      Because we are more interested in policing the Middle east.

    • If by explore you mean that we've done the equivalent of exploring New York city by walking around LaGuardia airport. I guess the assumption is that Mars is pretty much the same terrain all over (excepting Olympus of course). I suspect this is not even close to true. Either way we aren't even close to the tech needed to send a human team to Mars (and back?).

    • Sending humans, fucking or not, would cost 100 or 1000 times as much as this alleged waste of money.

  • Will NASA *ever* put at least one sound sensor on probes they send into atmospheric environments? If they have done it, why is it never published?

    • by Zarhan (415465)

      They do.

      Listen to the sounds of titan [planetary.org], recorded by Hyugens probe (fine, that was european, but piggybacked on Cassini).

      Mars Polar Lander also had one (although it crashed).

  • Hey guys over at NASA, i hope you are reading this....here is what you need
    WINDSHIELD WIPERS.....to get the crap off the solar panels when it builds up......maybe add a special weight caliper that lets you know when some stuff is getting on the panel, then use the wiper to push it off......

    seriously.....

    also - please send another unit that has
    a) booster cables (for boosting the old one and getting back another rover)

    • by AC-x (735297)

      I think you'll find the new rover is nuclear powered [wikipedia.org], not solar powered.

      • oh boy....here's is a drawing....
        1) send new rover with stuff to help old rover which is lost and/or with dead battery
        2) find rover
        3) boost rover and clean off solar panels of rover
        4) profit!

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