Space Science Reviews

, Volume 170, Issue 1–4, pp 793–835 | Cite as

Assessment of Environments for Mars Science Laboratory Entry, Descent, and Surface Operations

  • Ashwin R. Vasavada
  • Allen Chen
  • Jeffrey R. Barnes
  • P. Daniel Burkhart
  • Bruce A. Cantor
  • Alicia M. Dwyer-Cianciolo
  • Robin L. Fergason
  • David P. Hinson
  • Hilary L. Justh
  • David M. Kass
  • Stephen R. Lewis
  • Michael A. Mischna
  • James R. Murphy
  • Scot C. R. Rafkin
  • Daniel Tyler
  • Paul G. Withers


The Mars Science Laboratory mission aims to land a car-sized rover on Mars’ surface and operate it for at least one Mars year in order to assess whether its field area was ever capable of supporting microbial life. Here we describe the approach used to identify, characterize, and assess environmental risks to the landing and rover surface operations. Novel entry, descent, and landing approaches will be used to accurately deliver the 900-kg rover, including the ability to sense and “fly out” deviations from a best-estimate atmospheric state. A joint engineering and science team developed methods to estimate the range of potential atmospheric states at the time of arrival and to quantitatively assess the spacecraft’s performance and risk given its particular sensitivities to atmospheric conditions. Numerical models are used to calculate the atmospheric parameters, with observations used to define model cases, tune model parameters, and validate results. This joint program has resulted in a spacecraft capable of accessing, with minimal risk, the four finalist sites chosen for their scientific merit. The capability to operate the landed rover over the latitude range of candidate landing sites, and for all seasons, was verified against an analysis of surface environmental conditions described here. These results, from orbital and model data sets, also drive engineering simulations of the rover’s thermal state that are used to plan surface operations.


Mars Mars’ atmosphere Mars’ surface Spacecraft 



Above Ground Level


Entry, Descent, and Landing


Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, Princeton University




Jet Propulsion Laboratory


Mars Color Imager


Mars Global Reference Atmospheric Model


Mars Climate Sounder


Mars Exploration Program


Mars Exploration Rover


Mars General Circulation Model


Mars Global Surveyor


Mars Orbiter Camera


Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter


Mars Mesoscale Model 5


Mars Pathfinder


Mars Regional Atmospheric Modeling System


Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter


Mars Science Laboratory


Mars Year


National Aeronautics and Space Administration


New Mexico State University


Mars Odyssey


Radio Science


Thermal Emission Spectrometer


Thermal Emission Imaging System


United Kingdom MGCM


Coordinated Universal Time


Viking Lander



Adam Steltzner, Steve Sell, Richard Powell, David Way, and Jody Davis were additional key contributors to the design and development of the MSL EDL system. Rich Zurek provided a watchful eye and helped secure a Mars Climate Sounder data campaign one Mars year before arrival. Charles Budney and Tommy Thompson administered the MEP Critical Data Products program that greatly enhanced the characterization efforts. Leila Lorenzoni helped lead the initial atmospheric safety assessment at JPL. Fred Calef III helped with GIS analyses of landing site surface temperatures. R. John Wilson and Mark Richardson contributed to the assembly of the JPL 1-D model. This research was carried out at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ashwin R. Vasavada
    • 1
  • Allen Chen
    • 1
  • Jeffrey R. Barnes
    • 2
  • P. Daniel Burkhart
    • 1
  • Bruce A. Cantor
    • 3
  • Alicia M. Dwyer-Cianciolo
    • 4
  • Robin L. Fergason
    • 5
  • David P. Hinson
    • 6
  • Hilary L. Justh
    • 7
  • David M. Kass
    • 1
  • Stephen R. Lewis
    • 8
  • Michael A. Mischna
    • 1
  • James R. Murphy
    • 9
  • Scot C. R. Rafkin
    • 10
  • Daniel Tyler
    • 2
  • Paul G. Withers
    • 11
  1. 1.Jet Propulsion LaboratoryCalifornia Institute of TechnologyPasadenaUSA
  2. 2.Oregon State UniversityCorvallisUSA
  3. 3.Malin Space Science SystemsSan DiegoUSA
  4. 4.NASA Langley Research CenterHamptonUSA
  5. 5.United States Geological SurveyFlagstaffUSA
  6. 6.SETI InstituteMountain ViewUSA
  7. 7.NASA Marshall Space Flight CenterHuntsvilleUSA
  8. 8.The Open UniversityMilton KeynesUK
  9. 9.New Mexico State UniversityLas CrucesUSA
  10. 10.Southwest Research InstituteBoulderUSA
  11. 11.Boston UniversityBostonUSA

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