AstroDad’s latest: NASA launches Mars Science Lab

NASA successfully launches Mars probe two weeks after Russian Mars mission fails

This past weekend, on Nov. 26, 2011, NASA launched the Mars Science Lab (MSL) in a flawless event that propelled the automobile-sized (mini-Cooper) spacecraft on course to the Red Planet, Mars.

Named “Curiosity” by sixth grader Clara Ma, who competed in a NASA JPL naming competition, the MSL multi-purpose, six-wheeled vehicle will dramatically expand our understanding of Mars and serve as a “recon” mission for future human exploration of the Red Planet.

This amazing vehicle is shown here in a scientifically accurate representation of what the MSL will look like at its intended destination inside the Martian crater known as Gale, named after its discoverer.

If you watched the launch on CNN like I did, you may have gasped a few moments after launch when the CNN Principle Science Correspondent and Miami Bureau Chief, John Zarrella, exclaimed during his coverage of the event that the launch rocket was a Saturn-V rocket.

I reeled in disbelief for this absolutely unacceptable journalistic faux pas!  Are you kidding me?

The Saturn-V is the rocket that powered the Apollo missions over 40 years ago.  This weekend’s very large MSL rover was launched by a United Launch Alliance Atlas-V rocket – not a Saturn V rocket.

The mistake made by Zarrella really bugs me.  This kind of thing is so infuriating because if, 35 years from now, someone said on national TV that the Texas Rangers beat the St. Louis Cardinals in the 2011 World Series, he or she would be immediately shouted down and a correction immediately issued.

Nowadays you hear a lot about the downward trend of in America, especially in a group of fields referred to as STEM (Science-Technology-Engineering-Math) by those of us who are practitioners.  I believe that we as parents are responsible for educating and teaching our children such that they become lifelong learners. I’m not referring to homeschool (all my kids attend public schools) but with life-teaching which starts with the moms and dads and then leads to the teachers. Incidentally, even if we had to, we couldn’t just start building the Saturn V today because the equipment used to build the rocket has been dismantled and the design engineers have all retired or died.

Again, what bugs me here is not that people don’t accept solid, scientific theories that have withstood withering attacks over hundreds of years, but that usually (sorry for generalizing) these same people have no clue as to what constitutes the scientific method, nor can they distinguish between what is an observable fact versus a subjective opinion.  I think that (opinion, not fact) this might be what Crosby Stills, Nash and Young meant by “Teach your children” in their anthemic 1960s counterculture tune of the same name. Please, teach your children, moms and dads.  Get involved and teach them well.

Back to this exceptional mission, the Mars Science Lab. The MSL contains a buffet of sensors that enable the rover to see, dig, sniff, lift, avoid hazards, know when it’s getting zapped by radioactivity, drill, remove dust, sample chemicals in what its studying with other tools and more.

The figure shown here, from the JPL website,  shows the location of the 10 science instruments on board the rover.

There are four categories of instruments: the remote sensing instruments Mastcam (Mast Camera) and ChemCam (Laser-Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy for Chemistry and Microimaging) located on the remote sensing mast; the contact science instruments APXS (Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer) and MAHLI (Mars Hand Lens Imager) located on the end of the robotic arm; the analytical laboratory instruments CheMin (Chemistry and Mineralogy) and SAM (Sample Analysis at Mars) located inside the rover body; and the environmental instruments RAD (Radiation Assessment Detector), DAN (Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons), REMS (Rover Environmental Monitoring Station), and MARDI (Mars Descent Imager).

If you’re excited about the MSL mission at this point, then perhaps you are interested in following the spacecraft’s progress enroute to Mars.

To track the spacecraft, just go here: 

As an astronomer I follow events in our solar system with great interest, but must admit that I’m much more interested in objects beyond our solar system – like nebulae in our galaxy (and completely different galaxies), all measured in distances known as Light Years.  (Note: 1 Light Year (LY) = 5878630000000 miles (about six trillion).

My own equipment can image and record events on our solar system’s planets in great detail.  I even built my own planetary imaging camera several years ago.  It has been replaced with an inexpensive webcam that I modified to fit into a telescope.

On this Mars image that I took on Oct. 9, 2005 from our home in Rockwall, you can clearly see the tallest mountain in the solar system. Known as Olympus Mons, this single table-top mountain feature rises nearly straight up 14 miles high on Mars.  Surely if we lived on Mars, this would be an excellent tourist attraction.

If you’re still searching for Olympus Mons, it’s the dimple on the left side of the planet. This image was taken during the last favorable Mars opposition.

Do all of us a huge favor, if this Mars launch triggers a new release of that absurd Mars internet hoax that says Mars will appear as big as the full Moon, just kill it and never pass it on. Please don’t email “all” who received the hoax and tell them it’s a hoax because this just creates more problems.  Just kill the hoax by using word of mouth.

Note that there are no fancy solar panels on this planetary SUV.  The MSL, like several other NASA exploration missions, operates a small nuclear fission system to provide its electrical power. This class of machine is really more like a generator, not a giant, concrete encased radiation tomb. According to the World Nuclear Association,, a nuclear industry trade group, the generators known as radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) have been the main power source for US space work for nearly 50 years.  These are fascinating machines that rely on the high decay heat of Plutonium-238 to generate electricity for spacecraft, satellites, navigation beacons, etc.  Since it relies on alpha particle decay, the generators only require minimal radiation shielding.  Heat from the oxide fuel is converted to electricity through static thermoelectric elements (solid-state thermocouples), with no moving parts.

So far 45 RTGs have powered 25 US space vehicles including Apollo, Pioneer, Viking, Voyager, Galileo, Ulysses and New Horizons space missions as well as many civil and military satellites.  My favorite mission on orbit around Saturn now, the Cassini spacecraft carries three RTGs providing 870 watts of power as it explores Saturn. Voyager spacecraft that have sent back pictures of distant planets have already operated for over 20 years and are expected to send back signals powered by their RTGs for another 15 to 25 years.

The MSL operates a 290-watt RTG system known as the GPHS RTG. The thermal power for this system is from 18 General Purpose Heat Source (GPHS) units. Each GPHS contains four iridium-clad Pu-238 fuel pellets, stands 5 cm tall, 10 cm square and weighs 1.44 kg.  The Multi-Mission RTG (MMRTG) will use 8 GPHS units producing 2 kW thermal which can be used to generate some 110 watts of electric power.

In an effort to present a balanced perspective, there is a unique danger to launching these nuclear generators into space atop enormous explosive rockets.  If one of the launch vehicles experienced a major anomaly (blows up) shortly after launch, it presents the possibility of depositing a very dangerous swath of radioactive fallout in the debris field.  Based on the reliability of our systems, I consider that the statistical probability of a catastrophic launch failure at precisely the worst-case time for the nuclear generator is far outweighed by the statistical probability that we will continue to safely launch amazing vehicles like the MSL.

Although the MSL launch provided us with a great day that we could all be very thankful for, the MSL is the last such unmanned interplanetary explorer on the NASA drawing board.  That’s right, just like the gap in our ability to launch our own astronauts into Earth orbit, we are no longer going to be exploring our solar system up close and personal with such grand driving vehicles after the MSL mission concludes. Despite this fact, I’m hopeful that the MSL mission will succeed and NASA’s funding will be restored to appropriate levels that enable mankind to continue our quest to understand our place in our solar system, our home galaxy the Milky Way, and beyond to the Universe itself.

Unfortunately, I’m out of space on this column (no pun intended), but if your Curiosity (pun intended) has been piqued by this piece, I strongly recommend that you study Gale Crater where the MSL will land and the reasons the rover is landing at this location.

Max Corneau and his family have lived in Rockwall since 2000. Max retired from the U.S. Army in 2009 as a Lieutenant Colonel, Senior Space Operations Officer and Master Aviator.  He amassed over 3,200 hours as a pilot of Special Electronic Mission Airplanes.  Since 2004 he has been a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador, is a Master of Astronomical Outreach through the Astronomcial League and built his own astronomical observatory. His amazing images can be seen at

Read Max’s column about Earth’s closest encounter with a space rock here.

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