Next Mars rover passes key tests on road to launch

With key prelaunch tests complete, engineers gear up to stow appendages and pack up NASA's $2.4 billion Mars rover, Curiosity, for launch to the Red Planet in November.

William Harwood
Bill Harwood has been covering the U.S. space program full-time since 1984, first as Cape Canaveral bureau chief for United Press International and now as a consultant for CBS News. He has covered more than 125 shuttle missions, every interplanetary flight since Voyager 2's flyby of Neptune, and scores of commercial and military launches. Based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Harwood is a devoted amateur astronomer and co-author of "Comm Check: The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia." You can follow his frequent status updates at the CBS News Space page.
William Harwood
3 min read

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla.--NASA's $2.4 billion Mars Science Laboratory has completed an exhaustive series of functional tests to verify the car-size rover's readiness for launch in November on an eight-and-a-half-month voyage to the Red Planet and a dramatic rocket-powered "sky crane" descent to the surface, officials said today.

A computer graphic showing the Curiosity rover on Mars. NASA

Engineers now plan to carefully fold up the rover's robot arm, camera mast, wheels, and suspension so it can be packed inside a protective aeroshell that, in turn, will be attached to the bottom of a rocket-powered descent stage. The entire spacecraft then will be attached to its interplanetary cruise stage, encapsulated in a nose cone fairing in late October and hauled out to launch complex 41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station for attachment to a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket.

Liftoff is targeted for 10:21 a.m. ET on November 25.

"We just wrapped up our last functional test of the vehicle," said Dave Gruel, who is assembly, test, and launch operations manager for the project. "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."

Starting tomorrow, he said, "we're going to start stowing the vehicle for launch."

Journalists get a final chance to inspect the Curiosity rover before it is packed up for launch in November. William Harwood/CBS News

"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."

NASA gave journalists a final chance to view the MSL flight hardware today before the rover is packed up for launch.

The Mars Science Laboratory rover, dubbed Curiosity in a student-naming contest, is the most sophisticated unmanned spacecraft ever built to rove about the surface of another planet.

Unlike past Mars missions, the Curiosity rover will not set down atop a legged lander or bounce to the surface encased in protective airbags. Instead, it will be lowered to the ground 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 Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity at the Kennedy Space Center Friday during final checkout. William Harwood/CBS News

At an altitude of about 65 feet, a gravity-fed harness system will lower the MSL rover away from the sky crane, which will continue its descent until the rover's wheels touch down. Sensing the change in its load, the computer will send commands to release the harness and cables; the sky crane, its job complete, will fly off to a crash landing a safe distance away.

The rover, meanwhile, will be ready to begin two Earth years of exploration to look for carbon compounds and evidence of past or present habitability. The rover also will 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.