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Prime Martian-Science Real Estate
June 13, 2012 8:16 AM   Subscribe

PASADENA, Calif. -- NASA has narrowed the target for its most advanced Mars rover, Curiosity, which will land on the Red Planet in August. The car-sized rover will arrive closer to its ultimate destination for science operations, but also closer to the foot of a mountain slope that poses a landing hazard. "We're trimming the distance we'll have to drive after landing by almost half," said Pete Theisinger, Mars Science Laboratory project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "That could get us to the mountain months earlier." It was possible to adjust landing plans because of increased confidence in precision landing technology aboard the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft, which is carrying the Curiosity rover.
posted by mhoye (38 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
Well, I am glad they have increased confidence in the sky crane landing system, because it scares the willies out of me.
posted by vibrotronica at 8:24 AM on June 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


Unfortunately, also announced was that one of the cool experiments might get slightly messed up by the Teflon.
posted by floam at 8:26 AM on June 13, 2012


As long as the helper robot with inexplicable military tech doesn't get locked into aggressive mode by a bumpy landing that triggers an alien defense tornado that somethingJohnCartersomething... everything should work out just fine, right?
posted by m@f at 8:33 AM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


The whole landing procedure is just totally fucking batshit loco. Aerobraking! Supersonic Parachutes! Rockets! Skycrane! Two separate explosive bolt stages! Jesus christ.

If those magnificent bastards over at JPL pull it off, I am gonna yell so loud.
posted by Sokka shot first at 8:38 AM on June 13, 2012 [8 favorites]


What can possibly go wrong?
posted by marvin at 8:39 AM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Holy crap. That landing sequence looks like the physical realization of scribbling "Then a miracle happens" on a whiteboard project plan.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:46 AM on June 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


Psyched that my hometown is the first word of an FPP!
posted by blucevalo at 8:48 AM on June 13, 2012


In somewhat related news, Opportunity woke up again after its fifth Martian winter and is once again continuing its now much lengthened 3 month mission to explore the planet.

At this rate, I suspect it will be rolling up to greet the first humans to land on the planet, whenever that may happen.
posted by hippybear at 8:52 AM on June 13, 2012 [11 favorites]


They got that whole "inches-vs.-centimeters" thing ironed-out this time ... right?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 8:52 AM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


I assume Curiosity is planning to rescue Spirit and Opportunity, and bring them home? Because otherwise this Disney film is SAD.
posted by The otter lady at 8:53 AM on June 13, 2012 [8 favorites]


Anyone know what the deal is with landing ellipses? What are the technical concerns that prevent having a precision landing location? I mean, other than the fact that it's entirely frikkin different planet that we're landing something on and the fact that that sky crane landing system is insanely complicated.
posted by cirrostratus at 8:54 AM on June 13, 2012


Anyone know what the deal is with landing ellipses?

Opportunity is going to be moving at a fair clip, slowing the whole way, so errors in velocity, esp. early on. Since much of the work is reducing that velocity, there's much more chance for errors to creep in. The actual path of the vector is easier to correct and keep corrected. So, that changes the area of likely error from a circle to an ellipse, with the long axis oriented along the flight path.
posted by eriko at 9:08 AM on June 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


Anyone got a layman's explanation about why the landing is seemingly over-complicated? Is it to do with a more accurate landing zone? Testing out new technology for later missions?
posted by EndsOfInvention at 9:11 AM on June 13, 2012


much lengthened 3 month mission to explore the planet.

I kind of get the impression NASA hedges their bets with initial missions. They'd be crazy not to engineer for as long a life as technically possible. I think in an alternate universe we definitely got more than one photo of the surface of Titan from Huygens. What I'd pay a dollar to find out is if anybody in the know had hopes of Phoenix coming back to life after that winter. I mean, they named it Phoenix.
posted by floam at 9:13 AM on June 13, 2012


What are the technical concerns that prevent having a precision landing location?

Wind speed is at least one factor. The winds on mars are anywhere from 0-60mph, but usually max out at 22mph. However, since the air is less dense, the wind has 10 percent less effect than on Earth.

But even looking at this old research on parachute accuracy, even small winds at heights under 2000ft can have significant effect.

So, take the multiple layers of air currents from orbit to ground, adjust for different speeds over the course of the landing, and the randomness of the wind itself throughout the entry process, and you've got yourself a sizable problem. The fact that they can get that as accurate as they did is impressive.
posted by chambers at 9:16 AM on June 13, 2012


Sokka shot first: "The whole landing procedure is just totally fucking batshit loco. Aerobraking! Supersonic Parachutes! Rockets! Skycrane! Two separate explosive bolt stages! Jesus christ.

If those magnificent bastards over at JPL pull it off, I am gonna yell so loud.
"

And given the transmission delay, all of which will happen without direct human input. If those magnificent bastards over at JPL pull it off, I am gonna buy Skynet a beer.
posted by m@f at 9:22 AM on June 13, 2012


Anyone got a layman's explanation about why the landing is seemingly over-complicated? Is it to do with a more accurate landing zone? Testing out new technology for later missions?

I have read that the airbag method used for the last few rovers simply does not scale up to spacecraft the size of Curiosity. It's really big. Probably productive practice too. Mars has eaten more spacecraft than have successfully landeded there, we probably can't say we're good at space until we can do more than drop balloons on it.
posted by floam at 9:32 AM on June 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


I hope this works so Jay Leno and the like don't get any more "look how stupid NASA is!" material. Doing this shit is really, really hard so it's not always going to work and when it doesn't it's not because anyone working on a freaking Mars lander is stupid.

Hell, I think my success rate for cardboard model rockets is only about 50/50.
posted by bondcliff at 9:34 AM on June 13, 2012


The sky crane landing is going to be completely bad ass. Note that I didn't write "if it works". NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who designed and built Curiosity, have a great record of building spacecraft and managing the missions.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:50 AM on June 13, 2012


Total aside: speaking of landing ellipses, I heard from someone (and I can't source it, so it is probably bogus, alas) that the ellipse drawing code in Matplotlib was contributed by the Mars rover landing team for Spirit / Opportunity.

Apocryphal, but wouldn't it be nice if it were true?

And the skycrane idea is only marginally crazier than aerobraking (Areobraking?), deploying giant airbags, and *bouncing* across the Martian landscape until you come to a stop...
posted by RedOrGreen at 9:56 AM on June 13, 2012


I am amazed at the ambitiousness of this project. If this succeeds, it lays the groundwork for so many more missions to so many other places in the solar system.

It's unfortunate that the space station is in such a low orbit (due to compromises in the space shuttle's design phase in the 70s, the station could not be built farther out than the shuttle can travel, IIRC), as you could increase your chances of success by delivering, say, six of these vehicles to the station, one at a time, then send up a larger, single delivery vehicle which would be loaded with the six rovers, and send them all to different locations on Mars, using a 'shotgun' approach to minimize risk of failure of any one unit to successfully complete its mission.

Regardless of what 'could have been', the accomplishments that have been made with what we have available now are damn impressive.
posted by chambers at 9:59 AM on June 13, 2012


Total aside: speaking of landing ellipses, I heard from someone (and I can't source it, so it is probably bogus, alas) that the ellipse drawing code in Matplotlib was contributed by the Mars rover landing team for Spirit / Opportunity.
Sigve Tjoraand, Ted Drain, James Evans and colleagues at the JPL collaborated on the QtAgg backend and sponsored development of a number of features including custom unit types, datetime support, scale free ellipses, broken bar plots and more. The JPL team wrote the unit testing image comparison infrastructure for regression test image comparisons.
posted by zamboni at 10:00 AM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


JPL answers the question: How hard is it to land Curiosity on Mars?
posted by ElGuapo at 10:12 AM on June 13, 2012


I'm just using this thread to spit out all my space exploration qualms, my apologies.

From the article:
Curiosity will begin a two-year study of whether the landing vicinity ever offered an environment favorable for microbial life.

Pathfinder, the Mars Exploration Rovers, Phoenix and Curiosity all were/are missions searching for signs of past life or environments favorable to it. Not missions searching for actual stuff that's alive today.

Some of the data from Viking experiments that directly looked for evidence of stuff alive in the dirt came up positive, but deemed inconclusive, and to this day the jury is still out. They basically did a series of experiments looking for signs of biological metabolism happening when you feed the dirt and one of them said "YES!" but was thrown out because it was unbelievable. And as I understand it nobody tried to gather new data of this nature ever since.

We know of microbes on Earth that would be able to survive beneath the Martian soil. Why haven't any of the missions since tried to replicate these experiments or do new ones of this nature? Were 70's no-life-there conclusions more definitive than I think? Is it too hard to rule out contamination, or what?
posted by floam at 10:13 AM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


why the landing is seemingly over-complicated?

There's the weight of the rover that would otherwise pop the landing balloons used by the smaller Spirit and Opportunity; and they are landing in difficult terrain, the sky crane has some ability to adjust a little where it drops the rover, so it doesn't land on top of a boulder or in a ravine.
posted by stbalbach at 10:23 AM on June 13, 2012


That video is one of my favorite things ever.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:49 AM on June 13, 2012


Hell, I think my success rate for cardboard model rockets is only about 50/50.

As of 2009, the failure rate for all preceding Mars Missions was 52.4% - - so you're doing pretty good!
posted by fairmettle at 11:01 AM on June 13, 2012


Holy crap, if they pull off the landing phase alone I'll be amazed. Godspeed.
posted by tgrundke at 11:10 AM on June 13, 2012


Yay, my home city mentioned twice in the OP
posted by brenton at 11:33 AM on June 13, 2012


I kind of get the impression NASA hedges their bets with initial missions. They'd be crazy not to engineer for as long a life as technically possible.

Well, the "initial mission" as such is not a prediction of the spacecraft's lifetime. It's ultimately more of a cost accounting thing -- it's not too much extra money in case the thing goes splat or whizzes off to nowhere (both of which have happened on Mars missions), and it's just enough money if it lands and has a major glitch so they can try to troubleshoot and get it sort of working.

Really, with most electronics in your home or in space, if the thing works it's likely to work for a while. Glitches show up early or not for a long, long time.

It's unfortunate that the space station is in such a low orbit (due to compromises in the space shuttle's design phase in the 70s, the station could not be built farther out than the shuttle can travel, IIRC), as you could increase your chances of success by delivering, say, six of these vehicles to the station, one at a time, then send up a larger, single delivery vehicle which would be loaded with the six rovers, and send them all to different locations on Mars, using a 'shotgun' approach to minimize risk of failure of any one unit to successfully complete its mission.

I know these sorts of visions existed for decades and were part of various schema for Space Station Freedom, but they really don't fit into the current technology mix. It's really just as easy to strap your Mars thingy to a Saturn V thingy and shoot it off on its own. Station is where it is not to be a launch platform but to be accessible and useful in terms of technology and space science (which is ultimately earth science).

It is very true that ISS, as a follow-on to Shuttle-Mir and a combination of Freedom and Mir-2, had to be explicitly built around the launch vehicles we had, but that's not really a flaw. It took a decade to build ISS to be a six-person science platform; think of what we've had had to go through to build a rover factory/launch platform staffed with sufficient specialists to run the place and churn out a sci-fi assembly line. I'd love this in a comic book or movie, but in real life it seems at least a decade or two away.

Anyway, your multiple-lander approach has been tried. In fact the earlier frame for a Mars mission was "these are rare, so lets' pack as many things on as we can", then came Mars Observer (NASA) and Mars 96 (Russia and partners), both punishing losses that seemed to exemplify the "Mars curse". The new mantra became "faster, cheaper, better" and the new mission profile was small and light. This brought us Pathfinder, which begat Spirit and Opportunity, along with several other nominally successful missions. Now we seem to be going back to the pack-the-trailer-tight approach. I just hope the engineering is up to the challenge and the investment.
posted by dhartung at 11:39 AM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


As of 2009, the failure rate for all preceding Mars Missions was 52.4% - - so you're doing pretty good!

Then again NASA never almost set my elementary school on fire.
posted by bondcliff at 11:40 AM on June 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


The skycrane freaked me out at first. But its the same thing they pulled off in the 70s with the viking landers. Basic retrorocket to soft landing.
Since then they have had almost 40 years to refine the details, and of course the advances is computers and sensors.The twist of "landing" in the air and lowering the rover though is genius.
posted by Pink Fuzzy Bunny at 12:04 PM on June 13, 2012


As of 2009, the failure rate for all preceding Mars Missions was 52.4% - - so you're doing pretty good!

Curiosity is equipped with a laser, so Mars will soon pay for this rebellion. The planet will bend the knee or be intensively analyzed.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:12 PM on June 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


Brandon Blatcher: "
Curiosity is equipped with a laser, so Mars will soon pay for this rebellion. The planet will bend the knee or be intensively analyzed.
"

In the game of Mars you either win or you impact at sufficient velocity to create a crater.
posted by m@f at 2:52 PM on June 13, 2012


In somewhat related news, Opportunity woke up again after its fifth Martian winter and is once again continuing its now much lengthened 3 month mission to explore the planet.

That's what I love about NASA and JPL, their ability to milk additional science out of missions years after the initial plan, and make things work even when things don't go according to plan amazes me. The Galileo mission ran for 8 years over a low-gain antenna, a 20-watt radio, and a broken tape recorder while repeatedly diving into Jupiter's monstrous radiation belts.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 3:07 PM on June 13, 2012


> Anyone got a layman's explanation about why the landing is seemingly over-complicated?

The Bad Astronomer explains it a little here. It seems to be that Mars has too much gravity to land entirely using rockets, its atmosphere is too thin to slow down completely with parachutes, and Curiosity is too massive to use the previous balloon method.

I seem to remember hearing that part of the reason for using the Skycrane (as opposed to landing directly with its own rockets) is so that the rover can touch down with wheels extended, but I can't find a source for that now.
posted by lucidium at 3:29 PM on June 13, 2012


NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who designed and built Curiosity, have a great record of building spacecraft and managing the missions.

Tell that to Congress, the White House, and Headquarters who seem to like treating JPL as the red-headed stepchild at NASA with regard to continually cutting JPL's budget... and now, on top of everything else (after eviscerating the big flagship solar system exploration budget after the huge success of Cassini) is going after JPL's massive institutional knowledge of how to not get all your probes eaten by Mars (right, Russia?) and massively cutting the Mars program budget.

Congress and HQ really seem to like rewarding JPL's successes with punishment. And if you roll out the fact that a lot of JPL's budgets get overrun (when was the last time YOU landed something on Mars? It's not only not easy to do, it's HARD to even guess how much it'll cost. They're not just building another set of F-35s after having made a few dozen), compare JPL's success on a per-overrun-dollar-spent to just about any other NASA activity (JWST, anyone?) and it will still come out far ahead.
posted by chimaera at 4:18 PM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


In other news: Get Ready, Because Voyager I Is *This Close* to Leaving Our Solar System
posted by homunculus at 2:44 PM on June 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


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