After delay, NASA preparing Mars rover for launch

Apr 04, 2011

(AP) -- NASA engineers are putting the finishing touches on a mega-rover to Mars before shipping it off to Florida for launch later this year.

A small army of technicians dressed in protective bunny suits has been working around the clock inside a clean room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Los Angeles assembling the craft, called Curiosity, and testing its .

The $2.5 billion mission was supposed to launch in 2009, but problems during construction forced a two-year delay.

With launch scheduled for late November, engineers have been busy testing the spacecraft's various systems - all the while making sure that contamination from Earth doesn't accidentally hitch a ride to Mars.

The nuclear-powered Curiosity - the size of a small SUV - will probe rocks and soil to determine whether the ever had the right environment to support primitive life. It will carry the most high-tech instruments to the including a laser that can zap boulders from afar.

To the dismay of some space fans, Curiosity won't carry a high-resolution 3-D camera that "Avatar" director James Cameron was helping to build. NASA recently nixed it because there wasn't enough time to fully test the zoom lens before launch.

Scientists expect Curiosity to build on the discoveries of the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity, which have uncovered geologic evidence of ancient water and the Phoenix lander, which found ice at its Martian north pole landing site.

Curiosity's road to the has been bumpy. Engineers had to redesign the rover's and fix problems with the parachute. NASA also faced delivery delays from subcontractors that affected the launch timetable and raised the mission price tag.

Part of the reason why Curiosity is so technically challenging is because NASA has never built such an advanced rover before.

While the cruise to Mars and descent through the fiery atmosphere are similar to past missions, NASA is testing a brand-new technology for landing.

Instead of using airbags to bounce to a stop, the 2,000-pound Curiosity will be gently lowered to the surface by a sky crane.

NASA will begin shipping spacecraft parts to Cape Canaveral beginning next month. The three-week launch window opens on Nov. 25.

In preparation for launch, Curiosity has been on a publicity blitz.

NASA last October installed a camera in a viewing gallery overlooking the clean room that allows anyone with a computer to watch a live stream of the rover construction. There's no audio feed, but the space agency hosts periodic online chats with viewers to explain what's going on.

also has its own Twitter feed with more than 29,000 followers

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Quantum_Conundrum
1 / 5 (1) Apr 04, 2011
To the dismay of some space fans, Curiosity won't carry a high-resolution 3-D camera that "Avatar" director James Cameron was helping to build. NASA recently nixed it because there wasn't enough time to fully test the zoom lens before launch.


That's convenient. "No full color, high resolution 3-d camera for you, Joe Public. WE want control of what you know about our mission to Mars and the facts we find (or fabricate)." - NASA Spox

While the cruise to Mars and descent through the fiery atmosphere are similar to past missions, NASA is testing a brand-new technology for landing.

Instead of using airbags to bounce to a stop, the 2,000-pound Curiosity will be gently lowered to the surface by a sky crane.


Gonna be interesting to see what happens to this half baked strategy, given Mars only has 1/100th of an Earth atmosphere, while still maintaining about 1/3rd of the Earth surface gravity.

It'll be a miracle if it doesn't crash and burn like a rock.
GSwift7
not rated yet Apr 04, 2011
It'll be a miracle if it doesn't crash and burn like a rock.


The sky crane system certainly doesn't sound like the best way to eliminate variables like mechanical parts. However they have had plenty of time to get that part tested and nobody seems to be very worried about that part right now.

As we have seen so many times, just getting off of Earth isn't a sure thing.
Eikka
5 / 5 (1) Apr 04, 2011

That's convenient. "No full color, high resolution 3-d camera for you, Joe Public. WE want control of what you know about our mission to Mars and the facts we find (or fabricate)." - NASA Spox


You know full well that you don't need a special camera to take those pictures. It's more cumbersome without one, but not impossible.

A regular camera will do. You can stack images and then drive two feet onwards, and do it again, and you got yourself a fine high resolution 3D image.
Eikka
not rated yet Apr 04, 2011
As I understood, the rover has two full color cameras, one for wide angle and another for zoom, both at a fixed focal lenght to avoid a fragile zoom mechanism. It's cheaper and more robust.

The special camera would have both lenses with a zoom mechanism and a mechanism to alter the distance between the cameras to allow for adjustments in depth perception as you zoom in.

The way to take a high resolution image with the ordinary cameras is to basically take many pictures with the telephoto camera one right next to the other until you get a mosaic of pictures, and then stitch them together. The 3D part is achieved simply by moving the camera a couple of inches to the side, which in practice means driving the rover for a short distance.

You can easily do it at home. Just snap a photo, shift your weight to your other leg, and snap another. Then put the two photos next to each other on your screen and cross your eyes.
GSwift7
not rated yet Apr 07, 2011
I assume the cost/benefit of 3d was also an issue. There is very little value, except for entertainment, in having a special instrument for taking 3d images. It would have been a big deal for Cameron if he could have gotten his camera design to Mars though. Personally, I think a hi-res version of google street view on Mars would be more fun than 3d. Hi-res video would be really cool too. I guess bandwidth is limited, but you would think they could handle it by now. Time-lapsed video whenever the rover is stationary might also be informing.