Simulation and Testing Ensured Curiosity’s Safe Landing

Among the greatest of mankind’s achievements is his reach toward the heavens with manned and unmanned space exploration. Even with NASA’s mothballing of the space shuttle program, the work of exploration continues in different forms. The newest Mars rover, Curiosity, is the most advanced system for extraterrestrial experimentation to date.

Curiosity left our planet on Nov. 26, 2011 to begin its long trip to Mars. It landed successfully on Aug. 6, 2012 and immediately began to broadcast pictures of the red planet. The new rover carries nearly 10 times the amount of scientific equipment as previous rovers and is expected to continue in operation for up to four years.

First images from Curiosity

Curiosity beams back its first pictures of Mars. Courtesy of NASA.

On the engineering side, the road to Mars was even longer than the flight from Earth. The first calls for designs were sent out in 2004. The most complicated, and ultimately most important, part of the design was the automated landing sequence. Curiosity was to land with zero human interaction, responding to challenges with near constant adjustments.

Of course, everything was simulated and tested before being built. A virtual environment allowed NASA to understand how Curiosity’s 10,000 parts worked together in Mars’ gravity, and through temperature extremes that range from -31°F to 2,700°F.

CAD model of Mars Rover Curiosity

A color-coded CAD model of Curiosity, courtesy of Siemens PLM Software.

Testing for the deep space cruise phase occurred in a vacuum chamber chilled to -292 °F. The Martian surface can’t be physically tested nearly as well — Mars’ gravity is a real showstopper — but JPL does the best it can. The rover goes into a large chamber with an 8 torr CO2 atmosphere, a cold floor and walls to simulate the Martian surface and sky, and a solar simulator beaming down.

Once the tests matched the mathematical models, NASA was confident that it could virtually simulate that parts of the landing that couldn’t be physically tested on Earth.

Curiosity touched down in the Gale Crater, almost perfectly on target. The rover begins its first day on Mars by running diagnostics, shedding protective materials and sending back more pictures with both its front and rear cameras. The first month will be spent recording radiation and environmental data, along with deploying Curiosity’s high-gain antenna.

 The successful landing of Curiosity – the most sophisticated roving laboratory ever to land on another planet – marks an unprecedented feat of technology that will stand as a point of national pride far into the future. It proves that even the longest of odds are no match for our unique blend of ingenuity and determination. –President Barack Obama

You can find more coverage about the engineering behind Curiosity from Desktop Engineering.

Below you’ll find a video about the technology behind Curiosity.

This raw video shows the actual descent into the Martian atmosphere.

 

Source: NASA, Desktop Engineering

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