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Lockheed Delivers Protective Shell For Mars Science Lab

By | October 20, 2008

      The backshell that will protect the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) when it blasts off for space was delivered to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Pasadena, Calif., Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT] announced.

      The backshell is half of the large and sophisticated two-part aeroshell that will encapsulate and protect the MSL rover during its deep space cruise to Mars, and from the intense heat and friction that will be generated as the system descends through the Martian atmosphere.

      Lockheed Martin has designed and built nearly every capsule flown by NASA for space exploration since Apollo, but none as large as the MSL aeroshell at about 15 feet in diameter.

      For comparison, the heatshields of the Spirit and Opportunity Mars Exploration Rovers measured 8.5 feet and Apollo capsule heatshields measured just under 13 feet.

      In addition to protecting the rover, the backshell provides the structural support for the parachute and unique sky crane, a system that will lower the rover to a soft landing on the surface of Mars.

      The MSL biconic-shaped backshell is made of an aluminum honeycomb structure sandwiched between graphite-epoxy face sheets. It is covered with a thermal protection system composed of the cork/silicone super light ablator (SLA) 561v that originated with the Viking landers.

      Lockheed Martin used the proprietary ablator on the backshell of the successful Genesis mission.

      "The biggest challenge for the MSL aeroshell is its gigantic size," said Steve Jolly, Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company program manager for the MSL aeroshell. "It’s almost double the size of our Mars Exploration Rovers’ [Spirit and Opportunity] aeroshells. When you are building a structure that big, there are many considerations we had to take into account, including the fact that this is a lifting capsule that is steerable."

      Designed to provide a more-precise landing than previous missions, the steering capability is produced by ejecting ballast that off-sets the center-of-mass prior to entry into the atmosphere. This off-set creates lift as it interacts with the thin Martian atmosphere and allows roll control and autonomous steering through the use of thrusters.

      Scheduled for launch in fall next year, the Mars Science Laboratory — built by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory — 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, characterizing the climate and geology of Mars, and preparing for human exploration.

      The second half of the MSL aeroshell, the heatshield, is still in production at Lockheed Martin Denver facilities, and is currently undergoing installation of the Phenolic mpregnated Carbon Ablator (PICA) tiles. It is scheduled to ship to Kennedy Space Center in April.

      Shipping the MSL backshell comes just four months after the spectacular entry, descent, and landing of the Phoenix Mars Lander which also used an aeroshell system. Both the aeroshell and lander were designed and built by Lockheed Martin.

      Just when next year the Mars Science Laboratory will launch is unclear, though NASA still is aiming for a September or October liftoff. Funding issues also need to be resolved. (Please see Space & Missile Defense Report, Monday, Oct. 13, 2008.)

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