August 15, 2011

NASA Completes Tests On Opportunity Mars Rover

NASA said on Friday that its $2.4 billion Mars Science Laboratory has completed a series of functional tests to verify the car-sized rover's readiness for launch in November.

Engineers will now fold up opportunity's robotic arm, camera mast, wheels and suspension so it can be packed inside a protective aeroshell.

The spacecraft will then be attached to its interplanetary cruise stage and hauled out to launch complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in October.

The space agency is planning Opportunity's launch for November 25 at 10:21 a.m. ET.

"We just wrapped up our last functional test of the vehicle," Dave Gruel, who is assembly, test, and launch operations manager for the project, said in a press release. "Our functional test campaign included things like showing the vehicle can successfully go and do our entry, descent, and landing phase, get down to the surface and actually deploy the arm, deploy the mast, take images, things of that nature."

"It's pretty overwhelming," Gruel said. "We all got to see the Juno launch just a couple days ago and realizing we are next up...is a pretty humbling experience for the team...We're all really confident we've exercised [the rover] to the best of our ability and what's next up for Curiosity is getting down to the surface of Mars and showing us what she's capable of doing."

The rover will be lowered to Mars' surface and set on its wheels by a slowly descending rocket-powered "sky crane" designed to unreel the lander like a lure on a fishing line.

The gravity-fed harness system will lower Curiosity away from the sky crane at an altitude of 65 feet, which will continue its descent until the rover's wheels touchdown.

Curiosity will spend two Earth years looking for carbon compounds and evidence of past or present habitability.

It will also study the chemistry and composition of rocks and soil in the landing zone, assess weather patterns, measure the radiation environment, and determine the long-term distribution of water and carbon dioxide.

NASA said getting the rover safely on Mars surface is not an easy task, and 60 percent of landing attempts on the Red Planet to date have ended in failure.


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