California High Desert Simulates Martian Conditions
Southern California's high desert has been a stand-in for Mars
for NASA technology testing many times over the years. So it was
again as NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center and Jet Propulsion
Laboratory flight-tested the next Mars rover's landing radar, using
an F/A-18 aircraft.
The Mars Science Laboratory, or MSL mission, is following up the
grand success of the twin Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and
Opportunity, which tirelessly explored Mars for the last seven
years. The MSL mission is part of NASA's Mars Exploration Program,
a long-term robotic exploration effort of the red planet. The
mission is managed by JPL in Pasadena, CA.
NASA Dryden's F/A-18 carried a Quick Test Experimental Pod, or
QTEP, that housed the MSL test radar, attached underneath the
aircraft's left wing. The flight profile was designed to have the
F/A-18 climb to 40,000 feet, then make a series of subsonic,
stair-step dives over Rogers Dry Lake at angles of 40 to 90 degrees
in order to simulate what the MSL's radar will see during entry
into the Martian atmosphere. The F/A-18 pulled out of each dive at
"Not only has the working relationship between Dryden and JPL
been exemplary, but we're proving the viability of suborbital
flight testing of critical space hardware," says Mike Holtz,
Dryden's MSL project lead and F/A-18 backseat flight test engineer.
"This has been a unique opportunity to test equipment in a
representative environment prior to the space flight hardware
blasting off to Mars," Holtz says.
Data collected by these flights will be used to finesse the
MSL's landing radar software to help ensure that it calibrated as
accurately as possible.
The current MSL landing radar flight tests with the F/A-18,
which concluded June 20, focused on the on-chute acquisition
portion of the MSL's entry into the Martian atmosphere, when the
spacecraft is suspended from its parachute. Last June, NASA Dryden
supported MSL radar testing aboard a helicopter at Dryden, which
focused on the powered descent portion of the MSL flight
Overall, the flight envelope for MSL radar operations is much
larger than it was for the Mars Exploration Rovers and Phoenix
Lander, due to the MSL radar operating at higher altitudes than
either of its predecessors. Those previous Mars missions tested the
landing radar with only a helicopter, but testing with both the
helicopter and the F/A-18 is required this time around.
The test results will be analyzed to verify the radar performs
as expected throughout its flight envelope. If any unexpected
performance is uncovered, the JPL team has the ability to modify
the parameters and/or software any time leading up to the rover's
scheduled landing in August 2012.