Another Mars Rover – Atlas V chosen

by Chris Bergin

NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida has selected Lockheed Martin Commercial Launch Services Inc. to deliver an Atlas V rocket for the Mars Science Laboratory mission to carry a large rover to the red planet in the fall of 2009.

The six-wheeled rover will explore Mars for two years, examining sites to identify where the building blocks for life may exist.

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The total Mars Science Laboratory launch service price is $194.7 million. That cost includes NASA launch services and mission integration requirements. This is a firm-fixed price contract.

The launch services for Mars Science Laboratory are being acquired under the existing NASA Launch Services multiple award procedures.

Principal work for the Atlas V Centaur propellant tank will be performed at Lockheed Martin’s San Diego facility, while the primary work location for the Atlas V booster propellant tank’s production will be done at Lockheed’s facility in Waterton, Colorado.

Building on the success of the two rover geologists that arrived at Mars in January, 2004, NASA’s next rover mission is being planned for travel to Mars before the end of the decade.

Twice as long and three times as heavy as the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity, the Mars Science Laboratory would collect martian soil samples and rock cores and analyze them for organic compounds and environmental conditions that could have supported microbial life now or in the past.

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The mission is anticipated to have a truly international flavor, with a neutron-based hydrogen detector for locating water provided by the Russian Federal Space Agency, a meteorological package provided by the Spanish Ministry of Education and Science, and a spectrometer provided by the Canadian Space Agency.

Mars Science Laboratory is intended to be the first planetary mission to use precision landing techniques, steering itself toward the martian surface similar to the way the space shuttle controls its entry through the Earth’s upper atmosphere.

In this way, the spacecraft would fly to a desired location above the surface of Mars before deploying its parachute for the final landing. As currently envisioned, in the final minutes before touchdown, the spacecraft would activate its parachute and retro rockets before lowering the rover package to the surface on a tether (similar to the way a skycrane helicopter moves a large object).

This landing method would enable the rover to land in an area 20 to 40 kilometers (12 to 24 miles) long, about the size of a small crater or wide canyon and three to five times smaller than previous landing zones on Mars.

Like the twin rovers now on the surface of Mars, Mars Science Laboratory would have six wheels and cameras mounted on a mast. Unlike the twin rovers, it would carry a laser for vaporizing a thin layer from the surface of a rock and analyzing the elemental composition of the underlying materials.

It would then be able to collect and crush rock and soil samples and distribute them to on-board test chambers for chemical analysis. Its design includes a suite of scientific instruments for identifying organic compounds such as proteins, amino acids, and other acids and bases that attach themselves to carbon backbones and are essential to life as we know it.

It could also identify features such as atmospheric gases that may be associated with biological activity.

Using these tools, Mars Science Laboratory would examine martian rocks and soils in greater detail than ever before to determine the geologic processes that formed them; study the martian atmosphere; and determine the distribution and circulation of water and carbon dioxide, whether frozen, liquid, or gaseous.

NASA plans to select a landing site on the basis of highly detailed images sent to Earth by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter beginning in 2006, in addition to data from earlier missions.

NASA is considering nuclear energy for powering the Mars Science Laboratory. The rover would carry a U.S. Department of Energy radioisotope power supply that would generate electricity from the heat of plutonium’s radioactive decay.

This type of power supply could give the mission an operating lifespan on Mars’ surface of a full martian year (687 Earth days) or more. NASA is also considering solar power alternatives that could meet the mission’s science and mobility objectives.

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