The Martian rover curiosity was the first rover to be launched under the nuclear power train. It was a successor to the previous rovers Spirit and Opportunity which were very successful. It was launched on 26th November 2011 and landed the following year on 5th August 2012. Curiosity was built to last for one Martian year and to drive for 20 km but at the time of writing this article it has been 8 years and our rover is still going strong and has covered about 45 km. The payload was carried out to the red planet in Lockheed Martin rocket.
Basically, it’s mission is to determine whether the red planet was, or is habitable to microbial life, its a roving biologist. Its job is to look for places on Mars that could have sustained life. As a matter of fact, the rover has got the best chemistry lab that scientists have sent anywhere out of Earth. Eventually, it paves a way for future upcoming missions.
Live tracking of Curiosity’s traveled distance on Mars: https://mars.nasa.gov/msl/mission/where-is-the-rover/?page=0&per_page=25&order=sol+desc&search=&category=176%3A295&url_suffix=%3Fsite%3Dmsl
The site chosen for the same was the Gale crater because the scientist wanted to investigate the place called “Mount Sharp”. Basically what they are looking for is different layers as you drive up the mountain, to tell the time periods.
According to NASA, the rover has four main science goals in support of the agency's Mars exploration program:
- Characterize the geology of Mars.
- Characterize the climate of Mars.
- Determine whether life ever existed on Mars.
- Prepare for human exploration.
Watch the thrilling moment in NASA headquarters at the time of Landing:
CURIOSITY AT A GLANCE
The name of the Curiosity was chosen from a nationwide essay contest just like the Spirit and Opportunity rover. A sixth-grade student from Kansas, 12-year-old Clara Ma submitted the winning entry. As her prize, Ma won a trip to NASA’s JPL in California where she signed her name directly on the rover as it was being assembled. Pretty cool if ask me.
Her Winning essay: https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/msl/essay-20090527.html
Curiosity has a very weak power source within its systems to accommodate the harsh climate of Mars. The signal between Mars and Earth takes about 14 minutes to reach Earth at the speed of light. Curiosity can communicate with Earth directly at the speeds of 32 kbit/s, but the bulk of the data transfer is being relayed through the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Odyssey orbiter. Data transfer speeds between Curiosity and each orbiter may reach 2,000 kbit/s and 256 kbit/s, respectively, but each orbiter is able to communicate with Curiosity for about eight minutes per day.
Scientific Cameras on the Rover
Curiosity is a hub for expensive and rare scientific instruments that are particularly used for Mars exploration. Some of the instruments are:-
- Mast Camera (MastCam)
The MastCam system provides multiple spectra and true-color imaging with two cameras. The camera can take true-color images at 1600*1200 pixels and up to 10 frames per second hardware- compressed video at 720p (1280*720). Don't be fooled by these amateur numbers, the camera can take some of the highest resolutions photos that there is.
One MastCam camera is the Medium Angle Camera (MAC), which has a 34 mm (1.3 in) focal length, a 15° field of view, and can yield 22 cm/pixel (8.7 in/pixel) scale at 1 Km (0.62 mi).
The other camera in the MastCam is Narrow-Angle Camera (NAC), which has a 100 mm (3.9 in) focal length, a 5.1° field of view, and can yield 7.4 cm/ pixel (2.9 in/pixel) scale at 1Km (0.62 mi).
Each camera has a flash memory of 8 gigabytes.
It is a suite of two remote sensing instruments combined as one: a Laser-Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy (LIBS) and a Remote Micro-Imager (RMI) telescope. It was developed by the French CESR laboratory.
The ChemCam has the ability to record up to 6,114 different wavelengths of ultraviolet, visible, and infrared light.
The first initial laser testing was performed on a rock, N165 (“Coronation” rock), near Bradbury Landing on August 19, 2012.
3. Navigation Camera (Navcam)
The rover has two pairs of black and white cameras mounted on the mast to support ground navigation. The cameras have a 45° angle of view and use visible light to capture stereoscopic 3-D imagery.
4. Hazard Avoidance Cameras (Hazcam)
The rover has 4 pairs of black and white navigation cameras called Hazcam, with 2 pairs in the front and 2 pairs in the back. They are used for autonomous hazard avoidance during rover drivers and for safe positioning of the robotic arm on rocks and soils.
The cameras have a 120° field of view and can map the terrain at up to 3 m (9.8 ft) in front of the rover.
IMPROVEMENT OVER SPIRIT & OPPORTUNITY
Better Power Source
Spirit and Opportunity got their power from converting the energy of the Sun to electrical energy through its solar panels. But this had a major problem as there are numerous dust storms on Mars which gets accumulated on the surface of solar panels and reduced the converting capacity of the solar panels from the already reduced solar radiation from the Sun due to increased distance.
But where there is bad there is something good to compensate for it as there are wind clouds which clean the accumulated dust from the surface of the rover and make sure it gets enough heat to generate electricity.
But as a matter of fact, this is not a proper solution for something that costs millions of dollars. So the engineers have fitted the Curiosity with a nuclear power-train which doesn’t rely on solar panels, it makes its own power. Its power source produced electricity from the heat of plutonium-238’s radioactivity decay. The rover contains about 10 lbs (4.8 kg) of plutonium dioxide.
Bigger & Better
The curiosity is as big as a regular SUV. It is 9 feet 10 inches long by 9 feet 1 inch wide (3m by 2.8 m) and about 7 feet high (2.1 m). It weighs 2,000 lbs (900 kg). Its wheelbase has a 20 inch (50.8 cm) diameter.
It was designed by the NASA engineers to roll over obstacles up to 25 inches (65 centimeters) high and to travel up to 660 feet (200m) a day.
It has a top speed of 5 cm/sec. It takes 45 minutes to do a football field. If you are 300 million miles from the nearest gas station you need to take your time.
SPECIALTIES OF CURIOSITY
- Every year on 5th August, Curiosity celebrates its birthday by singing the “birthday song” through its SAM (Sample Analysis at Mars). It produces a simple electronic sound that can be altered at different intensities to produce high and low pitch sounds. At the time of writing this article, Curiosity has celebrated 8 birthdays on Mars.
- Many things on the Curiosity are high-tec but at the very basic level, the thing that is is amazing is its wheels. It is designed in such a way that if it encounters any rough terrain or any medium-sized boulder, it keeps the rover at the same level through its 6 wheels drive and 4 wheels steering, yes you heard that wright it has motors in its all of its 6 wheels. This design is so simple yet awesome at the same time.
Not only that it has the name JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) engraved in its wheels in Morse code. JPL being the center where Curiosity was made and assembled.
But mind this it was the greatest wheels that JPL produced as it was punctured during its time in Mars and as a result of that newly updated wheels are put on its successor Perseverance.
- The Curiosity rover was landed on the surface of Mars through a new landing system called the “Sky Crane”. It was a departure from the previous generation rovers landing technique “airbag system” and also corrects some of the shortcomings of the previous system. It is a brilliant system as puts down the actual payload safely on the ground. It is the very last part of the descent stage.
Unlike the previous rovers which took about one full day in unpacking and to get ready, the system puts the rover in ready mode.
- Curiosity forms the basis of the future Mars mission as it proved very successful in its own right. From its landing technique to its power source everything worked just fine on Mars. As a result of that NASA engineers will base the future rover on Curiosity. The rover Persereverance is based on Curiosity and will carry more new instruments than ever before making it a true successor of Curiosity.
Earlier power sources consisted of solar panels but Curiosity's power source had nuclear energy. This proved to be a good choice and design as it didn’t get any problems from the dust accumulated on the surface. Nuclear power worked like a charm.