Mars mission components delivered to Kennedy Space Center

The aeroshell will encapsulate and protect the Curiosity rover during its flight to Mars

The heat shield for NASA Mars Science Laboratory is the largest ever built for a planetary mission. Image: NASA/JPL Caltech

An Air Force C-17 transport plane delivered the heat shield, back shell and cruise stage of the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft to NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Florida, US on 12 May.

The heat shield and back shell together form the aeroshell, which will encapsulate the mission's Curiosity rover and descent stage and protect it during its flight from Earth to Mars, and from the intense heat and friction that will be generated as the system descends through the Martian atmosphere. The mission will launch in late 2011 and deliver the Curiosity rover to the surface of Mars in August 2012.

Lockheed Martin built the aeroshell and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory built the cruise stage.

The MSL backshell and the cruise stage departed from March Air Reserve Base, California on an Air Force C-17 Globemaster III transport plane. The plane stopped a Buckley Air Force Base near Denver where the heatshield was loaded on board, and then continued to Kennedy Space Center. The Curiosity rover and its descent stage will be shipped to Florida in June.

Lockheed Martin recently integrated the MSL Entry Descent and Landing Instrument (MEDLI) onto the back of the heatshield. Provided by NASA's Langley and Ames Research Centers, MEDLI will collect temperature and pressure data during the spacecraft’s descent through the Martian atmosphere.

“Designing and building such a large and complex aeroshell was truly a challenge, but together with our partners, we have produced what we believe to be an amazing capsule,” said Rich Hund, MSL program manager at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company. “We have just finished the installation of the MEDLI package. Now we’re looking forward to seeing the data it will return as that knowledge will help determine how we design future Martian entry systems.”

In October 2008, the backshell, half of the large and sophisticated two-part aeroshell, was delivered to JPL in Pasadena, California where it was integrated with other flight systems. The aeroshell/heatshield is the largest ever built for a planetary mission at 15ft in diameter. In contrast, the aeroshells/heatshields of the Spirit and Opportunity Mars exploration rovers measured 8.5ft and Apollo capsule heatshields measured just less than 13ft.