Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity
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Classification: Rover spacecraft.
Mission: Research Gale Crater on Mars to determine habitability for past or present microbial life.
Features: Like Pathfinder and MER, the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) entered Mars's atmosphere directly from its interplanetary trajectory; it did not first orbit the planet the way Viking did. During entry, MSL was unique in that it gained lift from its aeroshell, by jettisoning ballast to increase its angle of attack. Under control of onboard computing capability, thrusters then manipulated its attitude, thereby guiding it to a commanded landing site within a small error elipse on the surface. Additional ballast was jettisoned to zero out the angle of attack prior to parachute deployment.
MSL decelerated further using a large supersonic parachute, separated from its heat shield and backshell, and then executed a rocket-powered descent until the rover itself separated from its final delivery system, called the sky crane, which hovered while lowering the rover to the surface on three nylon bridles. Upon touchdown, pyrotechnic cutters severed the bridles and the sky crane flew off to crash-land.
While exploring Mars, the rover will collect, grind, distribute, and analyze approximately 70 samples of soil and rock with its on-board instruments. Its eight specific scientific objectives are discussed here.
Stabilization: Cruise stage was spin-stabilized.
Also see: MSL Project Website.