NASA spills last details of Mars space truck trip

Skycrane landing, mountain climbing, nail biting


NASA Mars Science Laboratory is buttoned up into its fairing atop its Atlas booster, ready for liftoff on November 25 with touchdown scheduled for August of next year – a reentry and landing that will have NASA space boffins biting their nails.

"Any entry, descent, and landing on Mars is a place where you take pause and bite your nails a little bit," said MSL project manager Pete Theisinger at a NASA press conference on Thursday. "It's not a risk-free environment."

The main nail-biting aspect of the landing will be that it will not be done using the air-bag cushioning scheme perfected in previous Mars missions – the Pathfinder mission with its Sojourner rover, and the the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity of 2003.

NASA's Phoenix lander used a no-airbag landing system, but it was far less complex – and risky – than the MSL, in that it had no rover to deliver.

The MSL rover, Curiosity, is far larger than previous Mars rovers, and will be delivered to its landing site in the Gale Crater by a thrust-based lander from which it will be lowered and placed on the Martian surface by what NASA refers to as a "skycrane".

Mars Science Laboratory - Curiosity rover

The Mars Science Laboratory's rolling home: the Curiosity rover (click to enlarge)

Curiosity is about twice as long and five times as heavy as previos rovers, weighing in at about 900 kilograms (2,000 lbs.) and standing about six feet tall. Like its predecessors, it has six wheels – but unlike previous rovers, should one wheel's motor fail, it will be able to be set to freewheel, and thus not need to be dragged along as was the failed wheel on Spirit, which was stuck for three years.

Creating an airbag landing system for Curiosity was not an option. "When the agency decided the objectives for this mission and the suite of instruments that would be required to perform the science, and we saw that we had to develop a very large rover," said Theisinger, "it was very clear that that was beyond the scale of airbags to be able to land successfully."

And so NASA decided to go with a propulsive lander. "If you think about it," Theisinger continued, "there's only two ways to land a rover propulsively on the planet: that's to put the rover on top of the propulsion system or put the rover under the propulsive system."

If the rover sat on top of the propulsion system, there's an obvious problem: how to get a 900 kilogram rover off the top of the system and down to the surface. "That was a daunting, daunting thing to do," Theisinger said.

Mars Science Laboratory - Curiosity rover and skycrane

Curiosity will be lowered to the Martian surface using a skycrane attached to a propulsion system (click to enlarge)

He also noted that the MSL already has built-in landing gear: Curiosity's six wheels. "So the challenge is simply – and I shouldn't say simply – is to put it there softly enough," he said.

Hence the skycrane. "We went to a lot of non-NASA control specialists – the people who actually fly helicopter skycranes, we got them in the game – to talk about not only was this an achievable design system, but whether or not we could put together a test program that would verify it adequately enough."

Next page: Mars ≠ Earth

Similar topics


Other stories you might like

  • Prisons transcribe private phone calls with inmates using speech-to-text AI

    Plus: A drug designed by machine learning algorithms to treat liver disease reaches human clinical trials and more

    In brief Prisons around the US are installing AI speech-to-text models to automatically transcribe conversations with inmates during their phone calls.

    A series of contracts and emails from eight different states revealed how Verus, an AI application developed by LEO Technologies and based on a speech-to-text system offered by Amazon, was used to eavesdrop on prisoners’ phone calls.

    In a sales pitch, LEO’s CEO James Sexton told officials working for a jail in Cook County, Illinois, that one of its customers in Calhoun County, Alabama, uses the software to protect prisons from getting sued, according to an investigation by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

    Continue reading
  • Battlefield 2042: Please don't be the death knell of the franchise, please don't be the death knell of the franchise

    Another terrible launch, but DICE is already working on improvements

    The RPG Greetings, traveller, and welcome back to The Register Plays Games, our monthly gaming column. Since the last edition on New World, we hit level cap and the "endgame". Around this time, item duping exploits became rife and every attempt Amazon Games made to fix it just broke something else. The post-level 60 "watermark" system for gear drops is also infuriating and tedious, but not something we were able to address in the column. So bear these things in mind if you were ever tempted. On that note, it's time to look at another newly released shit show – Battlefield 2042.

    I wanted to love Battlefield 2042, I really did. After the bum note of the first-person shooter (FPS) franchise's return to Second World War theatres with Battlefield V (2018), I stupidly assumed the next entry from EA-owned Swedish developer DICE would be a return to form. I was wrong.

    The multiplayer military FPS market is dominated by two forces: Activision's Call of Duty (COD) series and EA's Battlefield. Fans of each franchise are loyal to the point of zealotry with little crossover between player bases. Here's where I stand: COD jumped the shark with Modern Warfare 2 in 2009. It's flip-flopped from WW2 to present-day combat and back again, tried sci-fi, and even the Battle Royale trend with the free-to-play Call of Duty: Warzone (2020), which has been thoroughly ruined by hackers and developer inaction.

    Continue reading
  • American diplomats' iPhones reportedly compromised by NSO Group intrusion software

    Reuters claims nine State Department employees outside the US had their devices hacked

    The Apple iPhones of at least nine US State Department officials were compromised by an unidentified entity using NSO Group's Pegasus spyware, according to a report published Friday by Reuters.

    NSO Group in an email to The Register said it has blocked an unnamed customers' access to its system upon receiving an inquiry about the incident but has yet to confirm whether its software was involved.

    "Once the inquiry was received, and before any investigation under our compliance policy, we have decided to immediately terminate relevant customers’ access to the system, due to the severity of the allegations," an NSO spokesperson told The Register in an email. "To this point, we haven’t received any information nor the phone numbers, nor any indication that NSO’s tools were used in this case."

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2021