back to article NASA's nuclear Mars tank arrives at launch site

NASA's new and improved, nuclear-powered, laser-toting Mars rover has arrived at Kennedy Space Centre in Florida to prepare for its launch towards the red planet this autumn. The roughly SUV-sized vehicle, formerly known as the Mars Science Laboratory but now officially dubbed "Curiosity", arrived aboard a massive US air force …


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  1. Pypes
    Thumb Up

    1 year life?

    I was of the understanding that, NASA tend to be very conservative with these sort of estimates, and 1 year life is actually code for "probably more like 5 or 6 years".

    The 2 voyagers are still drawing power from their RTG's after decades (admittedly with a significantly reduced load) I'll be very surprised if this thing runs out of juice after a single poxy Martian year

    1. Trollslayer Silver badge
      Thumb Down

      From an engineering point of view

      Solar power on Mars places major limitations as well, if a rover runs out of power without the solar panels at the right angle it's dead.

      Also the sustained power available from a nuclear source is likely to be much greater so this would allow tasks to be carrier out that a rover simply cannot.

      Sunlight on Mars is, at best, weak.

    2. Miek


      I think they have to budget for the costs of staff to supervise the rover over the expected lifespan, so by saying it should last 5 years kinda ups the budget somewhat. If, however the rover exceeds it's rather conservative initial lifespan estimate, the money should just roll on in.

    3. Alan Firminger


      Radiioactive decay is exactly predictable.

      The only uncertainty is the actual power need.

      1. Pypes


        I think what you mean to say is that radioactive decay is entirely unpredictable, but in bulk materials it can be reasonably expected to follow well defined behaviours.

  2. M7S

    What any nuclear powered, laser armed tank on Mars will find

    An answerphone message (with apologies to Gerry Anderson)

    "Thank you for calling the Mysterons. We're not at home right now but if you leave your rank and colour, we'll destroy you as soon as we can"


    Conrad Turner

  3. Arkasha


    That looks like a horrendously complicated way to land a rover. One dodgy solder joint, mis-connected cable, or loose bolt and the whole things going to smack in to the Martian surface like a sack of potatoes. Wouldn't like to be the QA on that project.

    Still, good luck to them and it's all good practice for getting people and their equipment & supplies safely on to the surface.

    1. jason 7 Silver badge

      Yeah, looks like too many steps involved.

      I reckon this was thought up by folks under the age of 30 who wouldnt listen.

      Am I right or am I right? You know what I'm talkin' about.

      I've written this mission off already.

      1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

        Looks like it's been invented by Gordon Freeman.

        So it's gonna work!

        1. Thomas 4


          Does Curiousity have a crowbar arm on it?

        2. TheProf

          Thunderbirds are GO!

          Parachute, winch, retro-rockets, explosions? Surely this is the work of Gerry Anderson!

    2. James Hughes 1

      All methods of landing are complicated

      And require QA testing way more complicated/comprehensive than anything anywhere commenting here has ever done.

      You argument for failure could apply to almost anything that's landed on Mars or the moon. for example, SPirit and Opportunity required aeroshells and massive airbags to land. Not quite as complicated I suppose, but you don;t wnat a puncture. Th manned lunar landings required rocket descent then ascent (not required here) and they went OK.

    3. Wemb

      It's been tried before...

      Landing heavy vehicles that way, that is - didn't really work though...

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward


        Looks like they have systems working that can perform these types of landings:

  4. Arrrggghh-otron

    Awesome landing... missed a trick though...

    I loved the way the landing craft hovers for a bit and then f**ks off to crash land somewhere else. The whole thing looks mind bogglingly complex. If I had been involved, it would have spun away, doing loops and then exploded in a spectacular display. That, is probably why, I am not involved... that and the rocket science bit...

    2 years doesn't sound too bad for something that big and I'm sure NASA can squeeze a tiny bit more out of it...

    1. Ian Stephenson Silver badge

      Can't be that tricky...

      ...after all it's not brain surgery.

      Yes, that's mine, the one with the dubious red and pinkish stains up to the elbow.....

  5. Beachrider

    This is a LARGE probe...

    Read the data on this. It is many times the size of any previous Mars-probe or those Lunikhod rovers that the Soviets used on the Moon.

    I don't know how-much radioactive fuel is on-board, but it is probably a know-able number. With that, a reasonable estimate of run-time can be done by anyone.

    It is fantastic that the Pioneer lasted so long and that the Voyagers continue to provide useful info (interesting update yesterday: )

    1. wheel


      "I don't know how-much radioactive fuel is on-board, but it is probably a know-able number."

      But what if it is an un-know-able number? What might that mean for the future of civilization?

      I think the public deserve to know whether we know whether the number is know-able or un-know-able. If, indeed, anyone knows.

  6. Anonymous Coward

    Sound in space? In a NASA video?

    So you can hear it when spaceships fire their thrusters in Earth orbit? Is this CGI film from NASA, or IL&M? Anything to make sure of the funding, I suppose. Shows what they think of the public, and probably of Congress.

    1. Mike Flugennock

      Sound in space? Artistic license...

      I'm sure the producers of the JPL/NASA concept video had sound in the coast-phase/Mars approach segments for the same reason Star Trek episodes had that subtle whooshing sound whenever the Enterprise flew by the camera while in space -- it adds a bit of excitement to what would be a really boring shot if done in a technically correct fashion.

      When the explosive bolts blow to cut the aeroshell assembly loose prior to Mars atmospheric entry, the craft is still in vacuum and the explosions would technically be silent, but then there'd be no cues to the audience that something important has happened; simply seeing the bolts pop loose and zip silently off into space wouldn't have the same impact.

      1. Alan Firminger

        I am glad we were spared

        Thus Spake Zarathustra .

      2. Mike Flugennock


        Sorry to respond to my own post, but... the second paragraph, "aeroshell" should read "propulsion module".


    2. Javc

      Re: Sound in space?

      It depends on where you put your microphone. If you put it on the spacecraft structure, ther ewilll be sound.

      1. Mike Flugennock

        Re: Sound in space?

        Point well taken.

        For example, check out some of the Space Shuttle boost-phase video footage from the cameras mounted inside the SRBs. Even after they've left the atmosphere, you can still hear random clanking and other ambient noise carried by the air remaining trapped inside the SRB housing. Mind you, these aren't the sounds of events happening outside, but... yeah, you've got a good point, there.

  7. Andus McCoatover

    Anyone want to 'tip them the wink'...

    .. abut miles and kilometres,?

    Nah. Probably a tad late for that. Design stage, an' all.

    Remember, US are still using Fareinheit. Just like Libya.

    Ah. Got the drift.

  8. Eugene Crosser

    Power source longevity

    If I remember correctly, Plutonium source will be at about 80% efficiency after about 10 years.

    (And, no, it does not depend on the amount of fuel on board.)

  9. lalalala

    That thing's got a winch on it, right?

    First mission, give Spirit a tow.

  10. VoodooForce

    The sound is there because

    the average Joe's (politicians, funding managers) attention span is way too short to watch 5 minutes of space film without big breasted aliens or light sabres and quick! look over there !1! a flashing animation with a celebrity in it... right .. something... mumbles I think it looks fairly convoluted.

    I thought NASA had put up a prize for a rocket that could hover, land then hover and take off again in the last few years? This looks to vastly more complicated than the entrants in that contest. Did they laugh at Carmack and others attempts and throw down this challenge with the bold "watch us do it with a nuclear powered rover on f''ing mars you losers!" statement?

    Some of my best plans came after a few beers so cheers to the NASA team.

  11. Graham Bartlett


    Memo to NASA staff: Ensure no felines are loose in the test area. The resulting headline might just cause every media person in the world to spontaneously orgasm simultaneously, with horrendous consequences for anyone nearby.

  12. Dan delaMare-Lyon

    Five times the weight....

    Ooooh think of all the physics that will take place when all of that hits the surface of Mars going much faster than imagined......still - given the size, at least we'll be able to see to crater from orbit!

  13. Flood


    The landing method seems to have overall too many points of failure, with a few of them appearing to be unproven - tho surely tested here on earth. I'd say only a 66% chance of it being another lost probe, based on what I saw in that video.

    The amount of time, money and effort expanded to send yet another Mars probe weighted against the return value seems to me to no longer justify this exploration method.

    The delay in communicating with the rovers because of distance is excruciatingly long, so is the time it takes to get them to do anything useful, such as rolling along to point B. This makes sending Mars probes no longer an efficient exploration method; especially weighted against the planetary data we've amassed so far. It's just a sandy rock; so what if we find 20 damn microbes 30 feet below 40 years from now?

    I beleive we will not find anything else that matters to the concept/plan/feasability of sending humans there ASAP. The consequence/contingency of whatever else remains to be found on Mars can be handled by humans at this point. I beleive the risks are now acceptable and that they have been for about 10 years now.

    The probes have the half life of bananas. It's wasted tech/savvy/hardware/money/time VS what we could do by having humans "onsite". Instead of sending damn rovers let's send tools, cargo, etc along with a book for how to cook for forty humans.

    We may not have much time left as a species, we should push ourselves to explore and colonise the cosmos at greater risk than we are willing to bare so far, while we still can/want/afford to.

    It's time to send one way manned Mars missions; we need to, more than we want to. And if you can survive, thrive and prosper enough to make it back to earth many generations down the line, cudos to you.

    Martians should get a clean slate for colonisation, not have to abide by any earth rules, have no mission objectives other than stay there, live there, have free unadultered porn, procreate and make that planet their own, not make it an offshoot of ours.

    Humans shall be stripped of the Nationality they held on earth when taking residence on Mars.

    Build a base on the moon. Not a hotel. Build a landing/takeoff strip and a manufacture/repair/maintenance facility.

    Peacefully stand up to, confront and defeat creationnists otherwise we'll never get there.

    Take Steven Harper with you, he's destroying my country.

    I'm staying so he never comes back.

    Grow pot first, tomatoes after.

    Don't send a postcard.

    Just plan for Venus.

    Bring a die.


    1. Oliver Mayes

      So close

      I was with you all the way up to 'defeat all creationists' and 'grow pot first'.

      I'm not saying I disagree with you, keeping religion from getting a foothold in a new colony is an imprtant step in ensuring it's long-term progress.

      Unfortunately though, you sound like a nutter. No offence.

      Who exactly is going to fund this? It'd cost orders of magnitude more to send people/food/clothing/farming supplies and that kind of money is currently only held by private companies whose only interest is in making more money. As far as I'm aware there is currently no world government actively pursuing human exploration of space beyond Earth orbit so this isn't likely to happen within our lifetimes.

      If I'm wrong about this then I'd gladly volunteer to be in maybe the second or third group of colonists sent out there (wouldn't want to be on the first rocket, need to make sure it'll land safely first). Who on Earth (no pun intended) would pass up the opportunity to be amongst the first Humans ever to live on another planet. Even if you didn't survive past the first generation or two it'd still get you into the history books.

      1. E 2

        They'll be fine

        because they have Stephen Harper with them to keep the banks stable and to keep the serfs working!

    2. Mike Flugennock

      Too many points of failure?

      Granted, when I first saw the concept video of MSL's "sky crane" delivery system, it did seem as if there were many, many things that had to work just right to avoid an expensive disaster (even though it was still cool as hell to watch).

      Still, though, when you compare it to the number of points of failure on the Pathfinder and MER "bouncing airbag" landing system, it doesn't really seem that much different in that respect.

      Right about the time the MER rovers were due to land, PBS' "Nova" series ran an episode on the MER project which had a sizeable segment devoted to the landing system, including much footage of airbag inflation tests. They also showed two clips of CGI concept video: one depicted a perfect landing as envisioned; the second depicted a failed landing in which one or more of the airbags ruptured or exploded on impact. Needless to say, the second clip wasn't pretty -- the whole assembly thrashing and tumbling out of control, leaving a trail of smashed and dismembered hardware scattered on the surface (but still fascinating to watch, in a sort of perverse and morbid fashion).

      The point being: either one of these landing systems has many points of failure, many individual components which all have to work perfectly at the right time; the "sky crane" system, iirc, was decided on because the mass of the MSL rover was too great for the airbag system to be feasible. Also, when you think about it, even something as relatively simple as an Earth-orbiting comsat still has many, many points of failure between the launch pad and orbit.

  14. Adrian Esdaile

    All that money and development...

    ...and they send it with the nuclear equivalent of a couple of dry AA cells.

    What a waste of time, effort & money.

    If (and it's a big if) the designed-by-committee clusterfuck of a landing system works, the rover is destined to get bogged 50m from touchdown in fine sand (bigger? heavier? Who thought that would be a good idea on a sandy planet?). If not that, it will run out of atom-juice 2m short of a potentially paradigm & cilivization - changing discovery, something like an alien freeway marker post, the demolition notice for Earth, or just a friendly nanotech cornucopia device with a big easy-to-understand button marked 'switch on to solve your planet's problems'.

    I guess at least when we finally get to Mars (unlikely, given the oncoming Dark Ages) we won't find it trashed by SUVs like most places here on Earth.

    My that was a large spoonful of pessimism I had in my coffee this morning!

  15. Beachrider

    Radioactive generation for this probe...

    I guess that some have gotten ruffled over my overly-general discussion about how-long the probe could survive. I don't know what they put on this lander, but Pioneer ran for ~30 years (not 80). It could be that Pioneer was damaged, but NASA has advised that its fuel had run out. I suppose they could have covered something, but they have little incentive to do so with such an old probe.

    Understand that nuclear probes 'light up' their fuel before they leave earth-orbit, so their on-Mars lifetime is reduced by the Earth-Mars journey time. If the probe needs 2KVA to run its instruments and move about (a total guess), then the question is how-much of what-kind of fissionable substance is needed to give a 1 year useful life? Remember that larger amounts of fuel require more shielding. There are specific protocols about avoiding contamination of the Martian surface, well beyond the usable lifespan of this probe.

    There are smarter people than me that can adjust these number and fuel-sizes to adapt to different probe scenarios.

  16. peterkin

    Thunderbirds are stop

    Where's the problem? It's not rocket science...

  17. Dr Patrick J R Harkin

    Did we learn nothing from Alien?

    In space, no one can hear your attitude control thrusters. (At least I think that was the tag line).

    Shame the re-enter, parachute, retro-rockets, pulley sequence fininshed so soon. I think a big white-gloved hand should have popped out from behind a panel a carefully placed the Rover on the Martian surface (after clearing the dust away with a handerchief first, of course).

  18. Potemkine Silver badge


    I like the way the carrier is thrown away like a garbage that will lies for decades, centuries or more on the martian soil. We start space exploration the human way, by thrashing everything we touch.

    1. Mike Flugennock

      Well... how are we _supposed_ to deal with that stuff?

      It's not like we can have it re-launch itself and return to Earth, and we can't have it loitering around the landing site in "hover" mode (although having it hover just long enough to send back some fotos of the rover in situ would be cool) because we don't want it going bad and crashing on top of the rover, so we're basically left with having it split the scene to crash itself a safe distance away. The parachute/backshell/heatshield assemblies of the last four Mars landers were also tossed away, roughly following the entry ground track to impact; the MER rovers, in fact, managed to visit the impact sites of their own heatshields and sent back some images which were fascinating, especially to the JPL engineers.

      This is what we did with the Apollo S-IVB stages after they finished the job of blasting the CSM/LM out of orbit to the Moon; iirc, two of them were injected into wide heliocentric orbits (the Apollo 10 S-IVB just revisited the Earth-Moon system recently) and the rest of them were crashed onto the Moon a safe distance from the landing sites as a way of testing the seismometers deployed by the astronauts. As I recall, the LRO -- along with photographing all the Apollo sites -- also sent back some nifty images of the Apollo S-IVB impact points. Surprisingly, the impact marks weren't as pronounced and dramatic as I'd expected, sort of like the remnants of a wet dirt clod thrown at a concrete wall -- a kind of a faint splatter mark with some thin ejecta, but no recognizable wreckage (not surprising as the stages exploded/disintegrated in impact).

      I mean, c'mon; how else are we supposed to deal with that stuff? Besides, we're talking about Mars, here, not some Kazakhstan farming village downrange from Baikonur, where spent rocket stages impact fields regularly enough that many farmers salvage them for use as sheds.

  19. Maninthemoon101010

    No chance

    Farkin hell, what's the chance of all that lot working then?

  20. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

    Radioactive fuel

    The decay rate of the fuel is knowable (and easily work-out-able-on-the-back-of -a-beer-mat). The limit is the radiation damage to the bits of the generate that generate the power.

    It';s hard to work out on a computer and the people that know this stuff won't tell you cos it's secret.

    Back in the 80s they wouldn't even tell us how long components we were asking to use on Hubble instruments would last cos we were foreigners.

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