New Mars rover, Curiosity, a study in great robot design

In the past I’ve highlighted some of the current Mars Rover’s accomplishments.  It is crazy to think that the Opportunity has been roving the surface of Mars for eight years sending back great images and performing path-breaking exploration.  But, there are greater things on the horizon:  the Curiosity.

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There are several mind-boggling things about the robot, but I am going to touch on four that seem really impressive:  nuclear power, size, landing method, and instrumentation.  When coupled with a space flight and foreign planet exploration, this robot sets the standard.

  • Nuclear Power:  This is the big one.  The Curiosity uses the heat from a lump of decaying plutonium to generate electricity (I wonder if they are using TEMs for this – we’ve done some work with them and their inefficiencies have always stymied a robust design) to run the robot.  This solves the problem of solar panels getting dirty, operation at night, and weak sun energy on Mars.  I don’t think this is a viable method for the home-robot market, but I am really impressed by this.
  • Size:  This thing is a monster.    It is about the size of a Mini Cooper!  That’s about 15 feet long.  The largeness of the robot is another reason for the nuclear power source:  it simply needs more oomph than a solar-based solution can provide.  With a size like that it will be able to cover large distances in its target zone:  the Gale Crater.
  • Landing Method:  This might be the craziest thing of all.  Basically the capsule containing the Curiosity enters the Martian atmosphere, slows down, and then deploys a parachute.  After it slows, it jettisons the heat shield to expose the rover to the planet.  Rockets then fire, allowing the capsule to hover, then cables extend to the planet surface and the rover is lowered to the ground.  If that is not enough, the capsule then fires up the rockets again and shoots itself far away from the Curiosity so that it won’t damage the rover on impact.  There seems to be a huge amount of things that can go wrong with this approach, but they needed something that the inflatable ball landing approach, because the robot is so large.  I can barely get my mind around the complexities of this landing approach.
  • Instrumentation:  The robot is equipped with an HDTV camera; various sensing, masking, and filtering capabilities so the robot can “see” in different spectra; a laser that can vaporize rock – the rover then can analyze the vapor; an x-ray spectrometer; and a 7-foot robot arm to list just a few.  All of the instrumentation is on-board to help determine if the life or its precursors ever existed on Mars.

Basically, this rover is taking a gun to a knife fight.  There are a bunch of things that can go wrong on the way there, but if the Curiosity lands safely on the surface of Mars, I expect a bunch of great science to to performed.

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