Lockheed starts Mars module study

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has awarded Lockheed Martin a preliminary design and concept study start-up contract for the Mars Science Laboratory aeroshell system.


NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has awarded Lockheed Martin a preliminary design and concept study start-up contract for the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) aeroshell system. Lockheed Martin and NASA have yet to finalise the value of the contract.



Scheduled for launch in the autumn of 2009, the Mars Science Laboratory rover will support the Mars Exploration Program’s strategy of “follow the water” and will have the science goals of determining whether the planet was ever habitable, characterising the climate and geology of Mars, and preparing for human exploration.



Lockheed Martin will design and build the aeroshell system, which includes the composite load carrying structure and the thermal protection system (TPS). The aeroshell is a blunt-nosed cone that will encapsulate and protect the MSL rover from the intense heat and friction that will be generated as the system descends through the Martian atmosphere.



“Lockheed Martin’s successful heritage with aeroshells and thermal protection systems spans more than three decades, starting with the Viking missions in the 1970s, and continuing with the Pathfinder, Genesis, Stardust and Mars Exploration Rovers missions,” said Jim Crocker, Lockheed Martin Space Systems vice president of Civil Space.



The MSL heatshield will be the largest ever built at about 4.5 metres in diameter. For comparison, the heatshields of the Mars Exploration Rovers measured 2.6 metres and Apollo capsule heatshields measured 3.9 metres.



Lockheed Martin is also drawing upon this expertise in its bid for NASA’s Crew Exploration Vehicle that will utilise a capsule design 5 metres in diameter.



The MSL heatshield will be made of a composite structure covered with a thermal protection system composed of the cork silicone super lightweight ablator (SLA) 561v. The backshell will be covered with a similar SLA 561s. The backshell structure provides the attachment points to the rover landing system and parachute system that is deployed after the capsule slows in the Martian atmosphere.



The aeroshell provides protection to the MSL rover through the seven-month cruise to Mars and the fiery entry through the Martian atmosphere. It will also support the parachute and a “sky crane”, a structure which will lower the rover to a “soft landing” on the surface of Mars. The MSL rover will be approximately five times heavier than the Mars Exploration Rovers.