NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory and its Curiosity rover were brought into sharp focus Aug. 2, during three presentations by NASA Mars program scientist Dr. Kelly Fast at the AERO Institute during a Thursday Night on the Square festival in Palmdale, Calif.
More than 125 persons attended Fast’s three presentations, with several hundred more visiting the related exhibits in the adjacent Aerospace Exploration Gallery at the AERO Institute.
Coming just three days before the anticipated landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars, Fast’s three lively presentations detailed both the goals of the Mars Science Laboratory and the challenges of getting Curiosity – which is the size of a small sport utility vehicle – safely on the surface of Mars.
“It’s very difficult to do, but the science payoff is so important to find out more about the environment on Mars … if we ever want to send people there, said Fast. “Are there places on Mars that could support life? (It’s) going to be looking at habitability.
“There’s just so many neat things that can be done on Mars,” she continued. “It’s going to be difficult, but it’s time to take it to the next level, and that’s what this rover is going to do.”
Along with the presentations, MSL rover hardware and graphics were on display, along with educational materials about the mission, in several exhibits ion the presentation room and the adjoining Aerospace Exploration Gallery at the AERO Institute.
Considered the most challenging NASA mission in the history of planetary science exploration, MSL and Curiosity will reach their destination on Sunday evening, Aug. 5, when they will begin their complex descent to the planet. Hundreds of separate computer-controlled actions must take place in perfect sequence to bring the laboratory from an entry speed of 13,000 mph to a soft zero-speed landing in seven minutes – described by program scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena as “seven minutes of terror.” Only a third of previous missions to Mars have landed successfully.
MSL was launched Nov. 26, 2011. Essentially a roving science laboratory, the mission is focused on determining whether the area inside Mars’ Gale Crater has ever offered an environment favorable for microbial life.
MSL attempts to build on the success of the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity, which were intended to complete a 90-day mission following their landings in early 2004, but which continued to operate far longer than expected. MSL mission planners hope that Curiosity to add volumes of new information to enhance humankind’s knowledge of Mars and answer some questions about its history.
NASA Dryden has directly supported NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s MSL mission preparations the past three years by test flying the MSL’s landing radar on one of the center’s F/A-18 aircraft and aboard a helicopter.
Fast took note of a plastic demonstration replica of one of the Curiosity rover’s six wheels that was on display during her presentation, pointing to a planned irregularity in the wheel’s tread that will allow scientists to record the distance traveled with each revolution of the wheel.
“JPL thought it would be really cute to put J-P-L in Morse code on the wheel, so it’s going to be rolling along the surface saying J-P-L, J-P-L,” she quipped. “You know, after all the work they’ve put in …(you’ve) got to do something like that.”