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NASA Curiosity rover: 13 engineering facts behind its success

Posted: 11 May 2015     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:NASA  Curiosity rover  Mars Science Lab  avionics  engineering 

NASA's Curiosity rover safely landed on the fourth planet from the sun, early on August 6, 2012, Eastern Time. Since then, it has been communicating with NASA's Mars Science Lab, passing valuable data and photos back to Earth. Recently, Luke Dubord, technical group supervisor, avionics subsystem engineering group, NASA, revealed on the opening keynote audience at the Embedded Systems Conference in Boston what made the success of the rover landing possible.

In discussing the NASA Curiosity Rover's design, launch, successful landing, and continuing mission on Mars, Dubord touched on topics that, whether engineers want to accept or not, are real of all engineering, from simple consumer devices to complex spacecraft.

Curiosity rover

1. 'Fake it 'til you make it' doesn't apply to engineering.

"There are many things we can fake here on Earth. Gravity is one of the things we can't fake." - Dubord

In discussing the challenges of planning for Curiosity's successes, gravity was a key issue. Gravity on Mars is only a third of the gravity of Earth, and not something easily coordinated for.

Unlike other professions where you might be able to fudge a bit here and there to reach a goal, facts are facts and numbers are numbers in engineering.

2. Timing can be everything.

"We had to work with astrology, not astronomy, astrology. When was it all aligned and favourable to launch our spacecraft?" - Dubord, laughing a bit

NASA had a two week window, open only every two years, that offered favourable conditions for Curiosity's launch, travel and landing. Kind of puts that tight deadline your manager set in perspective, eh?

3. Communication is key.

"Mars is really far away." - Dubord

Indeed, our neighbouring planet is about 248,000,000km at landing. Light at 2.99 x 108m/s takes 14 minutes to travel that far. That delay means that if there was a problem on the rover, Earth wouldn't hear of it until 14 minutes after Curiosity registered it.

4. Safety first.

"During surface operations, the rover must react to unexpected results itself."- Dubord

With such a 14 minute delay, rovers need to be able to take care of themselves and priority was given to Curiosity's safety in landing. Its autonomous systems become vital to success. Entry to landing, itself, took seven minutes and was over before NASA received the signal from Curiosity.

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