Mars Science Laboratory is going to be HUGE
Posted by Emily Lakdawalla
20-06-2007 11:11 CDT
Yesterday I deposited the baby with her grandmother and went to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a press junket to the opening of their new Mars Yard. (I did ask if I could bring Anahita along but I guess it's too complicated to get kids under 12 access to the Lab. Too bad, I think she would have enjoyed it!)
The Mars Yard is an outdoor facility where the robotics lab test-drives their rovers. For a long time, it has been an area roughly the size of a softball infield, perfectly flat, peppered with rocks ranging in size from pebbles to a soccer ball or so. This was adequate for developing and testing the Rocky series of rovers that led to Sojourner, the subsequent FIDO and its sister rovers, and the Mars Exploration Rover, but once the rovers were on Mars the robotics lab ran into a problem: there were no sloping surfaces in the Mars Yard for test-driving. They had to truck a bunch of dirt in to the loading dock of the building where they housed the engineering model to build a slope. Clearly, the Mars Yard needed upgrading. Yesterday's opening showed us the new-and-improved Mars Yard, which was six times larger, contained much larger rocks, and included one area with a variably sloping surface.
All of which was interesting, but that wasn't the best part of the day. They used the opportunity to unveil to the press the mobility model of the next Mars rover, Mars Science Laboratory or MSL. (Although I generally try to avoid using acronyms, it's almost inevitable to call this MSL. MSL has already stood for two different things for the same mission, and Mars Science Laboratory just doesn't seem like a very good name for a rover to me, so I usually wind up calling it MSL.) We -- I and about a dozen other press and another dozen or so JPL employees and what must have been every green-badged summer intern at JPL -- were standing inside the shed on the Mars Yard, and they opened the garage door...
I am forced to admit here that upon first sight of the giant spread of those wheels appearing at the door, I shouted something that will probably have to be bleeped from the TV crews' coverage of this event. Mars Science Laboratory is Absolutely Freaking HUGE.
This model is the mobility model, which is to say that it has no brain or instruments, just wheels and legs sticking out of a body that exerts the same pressure on the wheels, with the same center of gravity, as the actual rover's body will when it is on the surface of Mars. (Because it "has no brain," the engineers call this the "scarecrow.") Its features were described to us by MSL's lead mobility system engineer, Jaime Waydo. Although it is much larger than Spirit or Opportunity, the rocker-bogie mobility system appears to work exactly the same way.
With the introductions over, they took the rover for a test drive into the new Mars Yard. Here are some photos. The aluminum wheels made impressive scraping and grinding noises as the thing was driven over rocks twice their height. On Mars, they won't risk the spacecraft by driving it over rocks this big -- they'll stick to rocks that are wheel-height (about half a meter) or smaller. First, the rover with a couple of guys for scale:
Driving over rocks:
A closeup on a wheel, and a wheel track with my feet for scale:
They had lots of other rover models driving around, mostly variants on FIDO. This one, called Pluto, was showing off its ability to steer all six wheels and crab-walk at an angle:
Just for fun, I took a couple of sets of images where I moved my camera slightly from picture to picture, allowing three-dimensional views. These are cross-eyed stereo pairs; stare at one and cross your eyes until the two images overlap in the middle of your vision, then try to focus your vision to get the crossed image to resolve into three dimensions.
Finally, here is my first venture onto YouTube, with some video of the rover in motion. I apologize for the very low quality of these videos! I'll try to do better next time.
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