A Curiosity-mimicking aluminum structure dangles beneath a helicopter during flight tests of the Mars Science Laboratory landing radar mounted on the copter's nose in 2010 at NASA Dryden. The tests checked for rover interference with the descent stage "Sky Crane" that would lower the rover to the Martian surface. (NASA photo) › View Larger Image
NASA Dryden's Support of the Mars Science Laboratory Mission
The success of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in landing the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity rover on the red planet on Aug. 5, 2012 was an engineering feat unrivaled in the history of robotic planetary exploration missions of the solar system launched from Earth.
NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center directly supported NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) MSL mission team preparations during the three years prior to the landing by conducting flight validation of the MSL’s Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL) radar on both a helicopter and on one of the center’s F/A-18 aircraft.
During 2011, the Dryden F/A-18 flights focused on calibrating the radar during the on-chute acquisition portion of the MSL's entry into the Martian atmosphere, when the spacecraft was suspended from its parachute. A two-seat Dryden F/A-18 aircraft, with a Dryden pilot flying and a Dryden flight engineer in the rear seat operating the radar system's controls, performed steep dives of up to 90 degrees over Rogers Dry Lakebed at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.
Previous helicopter flight tests of the radar in 2010 at NASA Dryden focused on the rocket-powered descent portion of the MSL flight profile, during which the radar looked for a clear area to land the rover. The helicopter dangled a Curiosity-mimicking aluminum structure underneath it during those tests to check for rover interference with the "Sky Crane," the descent stage that would lower the rover to the Martian surface.
Data from these flight tests provided JPL's EDL team engineers with the information they needed to refine the MSL's EDL radar in the dynamic and demanding real flight environment.
The MSL vehicle's descent into the Martian atmosphere at 11,000 miles per hour, slowing down via a supersonic parachute and culminating in a precise, soft landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars, was highlighted by the descent stage’s radical Sky Crane rocket pack, which performed perfectly.
The precision Sky Crane landing of Curiosity on a planet 400 million miles from Earth was dependent upon flawless operation of JPL's advanced radar that was put through rigorous flight testing at NASA Dryden by the center's operational engineering and aircrew staff.
Although NASA Dryden had only a small role in the MSL mission's vaunted landing success, flight-testing of the MSL advanced landing radar system highlighted the center's abilities and expertise to perform cutting-edge flight research and testing under the most demanding circumstances.