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Press release No. 201/2011, 2011-11-25 | zur deutschen Fassung | print version | Search

From the banks of the Kiel Fjord all the way to Mars

NASA and DLR place their trust in technology developed in Kiel, Germany

On Saturday, November 26 at 16:02, the mission to mars started. On this day, America’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) launched the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) on a high-thrust Atlas V rocket for a nine-month trip to our neighboring planet. On board will be the sensor unit of a radiation detector, which was developed at the Institute of Experimental and Applied Physics at the Christian Albrecht Universität zu Kiel (CAU). This instrument, which will be housed on the rover “Curiosity”, will measure radiation levels directly on the surface of Mars for the first time ever.

The German Aerospace Center (DLR) is partnering NASA on this mission. The DLR funded the development of the sensor unit on the “Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD)” instrument at CAU and at the DLR Institute of Aerospace Medicine in Cologne. Furthermore, employees at CAU, in close cooperation with the Munich-based company Kayser-Threde, built RAD’s sensitive technology, which was funded by the Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology (BMWi). The total cost of the Kiel-based project is approximately EUR 1.3 million. NASA assigned Dr. Donald Hassler from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado, which built RAD’s electronic unit, overall responsibility for this instrument.

If everything runs according to plan, MSL will land on Mars in August 2012 and deploy a rover the size of a small vehicle. “This rover, Curiosity rover, is really a rover on steroids. It’s an order of magnitude more capable than anything we have ever launched to any planet in the solar system. It will go longer, it will discover more than we can possibly imagine,” said Colleen Hartman, Acting Associate Administrator in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

MSL’s goal is to search a designated region inside the 150-kilometer wide Gale Crater near Mars’ equator for traces of early life on Mars. It will also investigate the principle habitability of the planet for future missions. According to available findings, the bottom of the crater contains sedimentary layers that partly comprise minerals, which, in turn, strongly indicate the presence of water on Mars.

Over the course of the next two years, which is the expected duration of this mission, the ten instruments on board the rover will not only investigate the usual temperature and pressure readings but will also explore the geology and chemistry of Mars. RAD’s sensor unit, which was developed in Kiel, will measure radiation in both the Martian atmosphere and on the surface of Mars. “This is particularly important in terms of ascertaining the soil depth at which early life forms may have survived or could have survived the inhospitable radiation environment on Mars”, explains Professor Robert Wimmer-Schweingruber from CAU. RAD will be used to measure X-rays and gamma rays, neutrons, and charged particles (ions and electrons).

There are two types of radiation in the Martian atmosphere, namely galactic cosmic radiation (GCR), which has its origin in outer space outside our solar system, and solar cosmic radiation (SCR), which is released during solar particle events. There is also a secondary radiation component, which is created when galactic cosmic radiation and solar cosmic radiation interact with the Martian atmosphere and the surface of Mars.

RAD, which is the size of a shoebox and weighs 1.7 kg, has a new type of wide-angle telescope that can characterize the radiation spectrum on the surface of Mars. RAD’s findings will help, among other things, to determine the radiation doses that astronauts can expect to be exposed to during future missions to Mars, and therefore assist in developing suitable countermeasures in good time. Furthermore, the radiation values will facilitate the review of models that demonstrate how radiation interacts with the Martian atmosphere and the surface of Mars. To this end, RAD will take new measurements every hour for a period of 15 minutes.

During the nine-month flight to Mars, RAD will record radiation conditions in our solar system. In the future, a replica RAD will be used on the international space station ISS to measure comparative values for space radiation in Earth’s lower orbit.

However, before new findings on the conditions on Mars can reach Earth, the Mars vehicle “Curiosity” must first survive its landing, which has been a technical challenge for NASA. First of all, a new type of landing procedure will be deployed. Unlike the well-known NASA rovers “Spirit” and “Opportunity”, the weight of the MSL rover (approximately 900 kg) precludes it from an airbag-assisted landing. Consequently, following its entry into the thin Martian atmosphere, “Curiosity” will aerobrake 125 kilometers above Mars before parachutes are deployed to continue its deceleration to Mars. When it is approximately 1 kilometer above the surface of Mars, a rocket-powered descent stage will be activated for the final descent. After a total of 6.5 minutes, the descent stage, which will now be 20 meters above the surface of Mars, will hover and gently lower the rover, still connected by three thin nylon tethers, to the surface of Mars.

This procedure, called “Sky Crane” by NASA, will facilitate a high-precision landing in a target ellipse of 20 x 25 kilometers, which is approximately five times more accurate than traditional landing procedures. Once the tethers have been severed, the rover will operate independently on the surface of Mars and cover a distance of up to 200 meters per day. This Sky Crane procedure will be used again during ESA’s ExoMars mission, which is planned for 2018.

Further information:
CAU Kiel:

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Caption: The rover “Curiosity” houses the radiation measuring equipment developed by the University of Kiel. It will measure cosmic radiation on Mars for the first time ever.
Photo: NASA

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Caption: Weighing in at 900 kg, the rover “Curiosity” will be the heaviest vehicle to ever land on Mars.
Photo: NASA

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Caption: Operational area: Gale Crater. The rover will stop here, collect samples, and analyze and take measurements. It can cover a distance of up to 200 m per day.
Photo: NASA

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Contact persons for RAD:

Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel
Prof. Dr. Robert Wimmer-Schweingruber
Tel.: 0431/880-3964

Dr. Günter Fricke
Tel.: 089/724-95348

Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel
Press and Communication Services, Dr. Boris Pawlowski
Address: D-24098 Kiel, phone: +49 (0431) 880-2104, fax: +49 (0431) 880-1355