Select your localized edition:

Close ×

More Ways to Connect

Discover one of our 28 local entrepreneurial communities »

Be the first to know as we launch in new countries and markets around the globe.

Interested in bringing MIT Technology Review to your local market?

MIT Technology ReviewMIT Technology Review - logo

 

Unsupported browser: Your browser does not meet modern web standards. See how it scores »

{ action.text }

Credit: Lockheed Martin

NASA’s next Mars rover’s massive heat shield is finally ready for the robot. It is the largest heat shield ever built for a spacecraft destined for the red planet–not surprising since the rover is about the size of a small car and could endure temperatures up to 3,800 degrees Fahrenheit when it enters the Martian atmosphere.

The heat shield is made from a novel material first used on Stardust, a comet-sample-return mission launched in 1999. The material’s properties make it ideal for high-peak-heating conditions such as those the rover, recently named Curiosity, will experience as it journeys to Mars.

Without an adequate thermal protection system or heat shield, the rover could burn up. This was proved tragically in 2003, when the space shuttle Columbia’s heat-resistant shield was damaged during launch. The damage went undetected, and the shuttle, left with a comprised system, lost structural integrity and broke apart during reentry to the Earth’s atmosphere.

However, the shuttle’s thermal protection system is a combination of reinforced carbon-carbon on the wing leading edge, thermal blankets on the fuselage, and thermal protective tiles covering the underside of the vehicle and the nose cap. It is meant to shield against heat loads since the shuttle undergoes multiple reentries. Curiosity’s heat shield is a large aero shell that covers the rover and is made of a material called phenolic impregnated carbon ablator, developed at NASA Ames Research Center. The material is low density so it can withstand searing temperatures, making it ideal for lunar and Mars missions.

The heat shield was manufactured by Lockheed Martin and is the largest ever built for flight–it’s 4.5 meters wide including the back shell, larger than the heat shields for the Apollo spacecraft (under 4 meters) and for the current Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity (2.6 meters). Uniquely, once Curiosity enters the Martian atmosphere, parachutes will deploy to slow its descent, and it will jettison its heat shield, using thrusters and a crane to reach the surface of Mars. (Watch a video of how the rover will land.)

Curiosity (formerly known as the Mars Science Laboratory) is scheduled to launch in the fall of 2011. Its mission is to gather scientific data to help determine whether there is or was life on Mars.

0 comments about this story. Start the discussion »

Tagged: Computing, NASA, space, moon, Mars, space shuttle, Lockheed Martin, heat shield, thermal protection system

Reprints and Permissions | Send feedback to the editor

From the Archives

Close

Introducing MIT Technology Review Insider.

Already a Magazine subscriber?

You're automatically an Insider. It's easy to activate or upgrade your account.

Activate Your Account

Become an Insider

It's the new way to subscribe. Get even more of the tech news, research, and discoveries you crave.

Sign Up

Learn More

Find out why MIT Technology Review Insider is for you and explore your options.

Show Me