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Celebrate the NASA Mars Launch at Va. Air & Space Center
11.23.11
 
By: Kathy Barnstorff

Dozens of employees at NASA's Langley Research Center are eagerly awaiting the Saturday after Thanksgiving and the scheduled launch of Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) and its Curiosity rover.

The November 26 lift-off will mark the start of Mars Science Laboratory's eight-month journey to Mars. Curiosity, which is about the size of a Mini-Cooper automobile, is NASA's most advanced mobile robotic laboratory. It has 10 science instruments to search for evidence about whether Mars had environments favorable for microbial life, including the chemical ingredients for life.

MSL team.
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Four members of the Langley Mars Science Laboratory entry, descent and landing team, clockwise from lower left Jody Davis, David Way, Jeremy Shidner and Dick Powell, study MSL computer simulations. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith


MEDLI.
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NASA Langley technicians test the MEDLI Sensor Support Electronics box before it was installed on the Mars Science Laboratory heat shield for its trip to Mars. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

More than 100 researchers and technicians at NASA Langley have worked on the mission to the Red Planet. One of their contributions is a science instrument package, built primarily at Langley, which will fly 354 million miles from Earth to Mars to gather data during the last eight minutes of the flight next August.

"We designed and developed a set of sensors called MEDLI (for MSL Entry, Descent and Landing Instrumentation)," said Langley's Neil Cheatwood, MEDLI principal investigator. "MEDLI is installed on the spacecraft's heat shield and will thoroughly measure the heat and atmospheric pressure of entry into the Martian atmosphere for the first time ever. That information could be used to build better spacecraft in the future."

Team members are looking forward to the weekend launch. "It's really so gratifying and so exciting to be able to work on something from concept, through testing and actual flight, especially to another planet," said Michelle Munk, MEDLI deputy project manager. "So we're really excited to see it launch and be on its way. That just means we're one step closer to getting this ground breaking data back."

But most say they're even more excited about the landing next August. The final minutes of MSL's long journey is NASA Langley's expertise. NASA Langley leads the entry, descent and landing research and computer simulation effort. The team has practiced millions of computer landings on Mars, trying to include all the variables that could affect the MSL landing.

"When we get to Mars, we’ll have 7000 lbs of spacecraft traveling at 13,000 mph," said David Way, Langley entry, descent and landing flight mechanics and simulation team lead. "In just about seven minutes, we’ll slow the spacecraft all the way down to just under two miles an hour gently landing Curiosity right on her wheels. To do that the onboard computer will have to autonomously execute a complex sequence of events, first using atmospheric drag, then a parachute, and finally rocket engines to slow down."

Many Langley Mars team members and their families will be at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida for the MSL lift-off. Some have waited for this day their entire career here.

"Day one here on the job at NASA Langley I sat down to a technical interchange meeting for what was then called Mars Smart Lander," said Way. "I have worked in the project almost full time since then, so it's been ten years. When I started this project I had one child – I now have four and my children really don't remember any time when Dad hasn't been working on Mars Science Laboratory."

Other NASA Langley employees and members of the public will watch the lift-off at the Virginia Air & Space Center (VASC) in downtown Hampton during a special Mars Family Day event. A live viewing will be included with regular admission. In addition, VASC will offer special Mars-related games and hands-on activities, including a MarsQuest scavenger hunt, the chance to create an "egg" lander and live interaction with mission experts at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The MSL mission is managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Curiosity was designed, developed and assembled at JPL. Launch management for the mission is the responsibility of NASA's Launch Services Program at the Kennedy Space Center. NASA's Space Network, managed by the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., will provide space communications services for the rocket. NASA's Deep Space Network will provide MSL spacecraft acquisition and communication throughout the mission.

To learn more about the Mars Science Laboratory mission, visit the mission home page at:
http://www.nasa.gov/msl


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