NASA Mars Science Laboratory + Curiosity Rover: first look (photo gallery)


[photo, above: MSL's descent stage, which files the rover down to Mars' surface using eight rockets, and lowers it on a tether for landing. The orange spheres are propellant tanks.]

This week, Boing Boing was invited to visit NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for the first and only opportunity for media to enter the Pasadena, CA clean room where NASA's next Mars rover, Curiosity, and other components of the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft have been built for launch in late 2011 from Florida.

Shipment from the clean room to Florida will begin next month. Curiosity rover recently completed tests under simulated space and Mars-surface environmental conditions in another building and is back in the Spacecraft Assembly Facility at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for other tests. Spacecraft assembly and testing specialists showed Boing Boing the rover and the other spacecraft components, including the descent stage "sky crane."

Photographer Joseph Linaschke visited on behalf of Boing Boing (he donned a bunny suit for the occasion) and shot this series of photos. More below.

Captions for Boing Boing by Ashwin Vasavada, a scientist with the NASA JPL MSL program.

[photo, above: MSL's 4.5-meter aeroshell that encapsulates the rover and descent stage during cruise to Mars and its entry into Mars' upper atmosphere. The upper cage will hold the parachute.]

[The Curiosity rover on a support stand. Each wheel is 50 cm in diameter. The 2-meter robot arm and instrument turret are visible on the left.]

[Visitors look into the clean room at JPL that currently holds nearly all of the MSL flight hardware, including the rover, descent stage, cruise stage, and aeroshell. These components were assembled in the clean room and continue to undergo testing there.]

[Close-up of the clean room floor showing the descent stage (left), cruise stage (middle), and aeroshell (right). The technicians all wear special uniforms ("bunny suits") to both protect the spacecraft components from contamination and avoid electrostatic discharges that would harm spacecraft electronics.]

[The Curiosity rover, showing the location of the radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG) on the rear of the rover that provides both electrical power and heat to enable the rover's operation and survival on Mars. Pipes visible along the sides of the RTG use fluid to transport heat into the rover body.]

[ Detail of the rover's suspension system (foreground) and high-gain antenna (right).]

[Curiosity's deck, showing the mast (left), high-gain antenna (right), and UHF antenna (gray unit in the far left). At the top of the mast is a telescope used to focus a laser on rocks and soils up to 20 feet away for chemical analysis. Just below the telescope, the medium-angle and telephoto lenses of the rover's primary science cameras are visible as two squares of different sizes. On the outsides of those are the rover's four navigation cameras. Only two are used at any time, with the other two serving as spares.]

[Detail of the rover's suspension system and high-gain antenna (center-right, on the deck).]

[The MSL cruise stage. The cruise stage provides solar power, thrusters for navigation, and heat exchangers to the rover during its flight from Earth to Mars. The side-facing heat exchange panels have a protective covering in this image.]

[Detail of the MSL descent stage. The gray disk in the upper left contains small rocket thrusters that will help steer the spacecraft during its entry into Mars' atmosphere. The orange spheres are propellant tanks.]

[Underside of the MSL descent stage. One of the eight rocket nozzles is visible on the left, enclosed in a protective cage.]

[Close-up of two of the rocket nozzles on the descent stage. The gold-colored parts are the rocket throttle valves.]

[Detail of propellant lines on the MSL descent stage.]

[ The Curiosity rover on a support stand. Each wheel is 50 cm in diameter. The 2-meter robot arm and instrument turret are visible on the left.]

[ Detail of the MSL aeroshell on its support stand.]

[Rear of the Curiosity rover showing the radioisotope thermoelectric generator that supplies electrical power and heat to the rover.]

[Close-up of the MSL descent stage showing four of the eight rockets (in protective cages) that will fly the rover down to the surface of Mars.]

[Close-up of the MSL descent stage showing two small thrusters (inside the gray disk) that will help steer the spacecraft during its entry into Mars' atmosphere.]

[Curiosity's wheels. Each wheel is made from black-anodized aluminum and is 50 cm in diameter. Curiosity's wheels and suspension system are designed to take the impact of landing and to allow the rover to traverse sandy and rocky terrain.]

[Close-up of MSL's descent stage. The orange spheres are propellant tanks. The black-colored unit measures accelerations with high precision in order to control the descent.]

[Detail of the MSL descent stage showing a propellant tank (orange), acceleration measurement unit (black), and steering thrusters (gray).]

[Detail of the side of the Curiosity rover showing its suspension and electronics cabling.]

[Close-up of one of the rover's six wheels. The spokes help contain the impact of landing and driving over rough terrain.]

[Detail of the rover's suspension system and high-gain antenna (center-right, on the deck).]

About the photographer:
Joseph Linaschke is a photographic storyteller and educator, and runs, a leading site for Apple Aperture users. He has traveled the world representing various technologies and companies on stage, including MetaCreations, Wacom, Corel, and Apple, where he was part of the marketing team for Aperture and produced and shot several productions for iLife, Aperture and Final Cut Studio.

You can purchase prints of any images in Joseph's JPL Mars Curiosity Rover photo gallery here.


  1. I’m assuming that the Curiosity build team has a strict ‘no pets in the workplace’ policy, possibly following a number of tragic feline fatalities?

  2. That. Is SOME piece of equipment. Totally stunning. What a gorgeous piece of machinery.

    The photos themselves are exceptional too. Thank you for letting the photographer get in the room on this one.

    What a treat. Hope it makes it.

  3. This amazing!

    Beautiful photography too. I would be very happy to see more of Mr. Linaschke’s work on BoingBoing.

  4. Um, am I the only one who sees a pregnant woman with legs in stirrups in that first photo?

    I sure hope not.

    1. Um, am I the only one who sees a pregnant woman with legs in stirrups in that first photo?

      Actually it reminded me of the drones in Silent Running for some reason.

  5. Really cool that Mars-Rover 2.0 gets developed and these pictures.
    However I do not understand why men are walking in and the Rover is placed in a dust free envirionment as the Mars surface has extremely fine dust AND wind, and I hope the Rover will stay operational despite these harsh conditions on Mars.
    Then why handle it on Earth like a baby in a bubble: I’d prefer it to get sick here and not once it’s out of the bubble.

    1. Why we assemble in a clean room. Because one question that man has yet to answer is are we alone, and we don’t want to bring a life form aboard our crafts, right? Now we also build a test rover that we beat the heck out of it in very dirty environments, we even drop it….

    2. There are several reasons Curiosity is built in a clean room environment. Most notably is to adhere to the strict planetary protection guidelines that are part of NASA protocol. Specifically, we are less interested in keeping MSL clean for its own sake, and more interested in not contaminating Mars with Earthly dust, bacteria, etc. From a scientific standpoint, it is quite critical that we do not contaminate our Mars samples with material from Earth, because that would limit the viability of the data. In addition, many components on the rover were exposed to the environment during assembly, that will ultimately be much more sealed in its final configuration. So those delicate parts needed to remain dust free as well.

    3. It’s not about dust. It’s about contamination. There isn’t much point in spending a few billion dollars to find life on Mars when the detectors are finding life but it’s life from someone’s thumbprint or sneeze.

      There are international treaties (interplanetary?) on removing contamination from any vehicle that goes to a pristine environment.

      Why do you think they made the Galileo probe fall into Jupiter?

    4. It’s to keep Earth microbes from contaminating the vehicle and getting transfered to Mars.

  6. wonderful space hardware but what i like about these and other photos of the clean rooms and other high tech assembly areas are the mundane,every day objects.Sharpy markings on parts that will be on Mars,wall lockers with stuff piled on top like you might find at any small factory and best of all those red rolling tool box’s from Sears,i have one in my garage.

  7. I was going to bleat about the all rights reserved text on the photos but fair-dos, NASA needs decent photographers. Send Joseph to the ISS!

  8. Over at io9 they have a video showing how this thing is supposed to be deployed. When I saw how the rover was supposed to be placed on the surface of Mars, my immediate reaction was: “You’ve GOT to be kidding!” It looked as if the engineers who designed this were deliberately trying to make the process as complicated as possible in order to maximize the opportunities for something to go horribly wrong, dooming the mission. Further evidence in support of my theory that American aerospace engineers (unlike their Russian counterparts) place a higher value on technological coolness than on practicality.

    1. It isn’t anymore complicated then it has to be. It is just really hard to land something of that mass on Mars.

    2. They actually landed Phoenix with rockets, too. It’s pretty well a necessity if you want a controlled landing for a gigantic (yet still delicate) machine. My mind is still boggled that Phoenix landed, but they seemed pretty well unconcerned about it :)

      The Vikings in the 1970s used rockets for landing, too. I think this is the first rover to do it, but it’s also the biggest rover. Granted, this is the first one with the rockets _separate_ from the rover, so that’ll be fun.

      1. It wasn’t the rockets that struck me as problematic – in fact, I assumed that rockets would have to be used. It was the process of dropping the rover by cables from a hovering platform. It seems like there are LOTS of things that could potentially go wrong with the cable drop.

        And, in response to Anon #19 above, I never suggested using airbags. In fact, I made no suggestions about how to land this thing. I only pointed out that it looked like there were lots of opportunities for catastrophic failure using this particular method. It seems like it leaves no room for error.

    3. I think you need to read more into the technology of the Mars rover before you put down an entire organization like NASA.

      Please educate yourself at the Mars Rover Curiosity FAQ page.

      To quickly answer your criticism. The reason for what seems to be an elaborate decent stage is because of the weight of the the Rover which is ~900KG or ~2000lbs. Compare to previous Rovers which were extremely light. In other words you can’t use the simple air bag method on the Curiosity because the margin for catastrophic failure and damage to the sensitive equipment would be too great due to the weight and possible impact on the ground. Also, you’d have to pack air bags so big it would not be viable. Lastly, this crane method allows them to approximate more closely where it will land instead of throwing it up to chance on where the rover will come to a stop.

      After extensive testing they found that lowering the Rover via the Crane was the best option for successful landing.

      No one is going to make it look flashy just for kicks when billions of tax pay dollars are on the line, and the reputation of your entire organization depends on its success.

      There is also a live ustream video where you can see the assembly/testing and chat live with a JPL rep, usually for 1 hour during regular business hours.

    4. You really have no idea of what you are talking about. It’s not because it’s cool, it’s because it’s the only way they found to land a rover of that mass. Believe me, if they could do it simpler, they’d have done it simpler

  9. As Ellison would tell you himself, the animation isn’t his work. He’s the liaison between the animators and the engineers.

  10. Hey sapere_aude, MSL is too big and heavy to use airbags…we thought of that. Thanks for your input though. Also, read up a bit on NASA successes vs. Russian successes on Mars, K?

  11. Anon:

    Optics, electronics, etc are very sensitive and our dander, ESD, cooties, etc can damage them. Also, we don’t want to find something interesting on Mars only to discover later that we sent it there as a stowaway. Google or YouTube “JPL cleanroom”…it explains all of it.

    And don’t worry, we have the best experts in the world here, so we take the dust and wind into account…

    “I’d prefer it to get sick here and not once it’s out of the bubble” = testing, testing, and more testing. Google “25ft Space Simulator”, we test in there too.

  12. Now they are beautiful photos. Is the sphere in the centre (Sharpie markings and all) the RTG power core, or something else?

    1. @andygates if you go to photo number 7, you can see the RTG. Well it’s not a real RTG. this is the fake one, probably put in just for the photos. we use the fake RTG for practice and for fit checks and to make sure we know all the problems before we install the flight unit. the real RTG is basically the last thing to be installed while on the launch pad at Kennedy.
      The “sphere” that you see in photo 1 is the fuel tank in the Descent Stage.. or really the protective covers on the fuel tank.. thus the sharpy markings. all that red stuff is also protective covers. none of protective covers fly. they are on there to make sure no one accidentally drops a wrench on something critical. (it happens).

  13. Hi all, Joseph the photographer here. I really appreciate the complements and comments! Especially the Anon poster who suggested sending me to the ISS… hehe, sign me up!

    Thanks again

  14. one reporter was overheard saying,”This is cool and all, but where is the room where Jack Parsons did his occult stuff?” ;-)

  15. “Is the sphere in the centre (Sharpie markings and all) the RTG power core, or something else?”

    No, I think you are referring to the temporary tank covers on the Descent Stage – those will be removed later.

  16. Glad to see the tires are adapted to release debris from the wheels (img 4, 7, 18, etc…). However, as the “clearing” points are so close together, this, from the images, from the images seems to create unsettling point-of-failure stress points. How much does this affect the overall strength of the wheels and what happens if failure (vis-a-vis tire breakage) occurs? The potential dual-camera configuration (img 4,7,8, etc…), a’la Wall-E, appear to potentiate 3-D imaging. Anyone “in the know” want to comment/correct?

    1 Joseph Linaschke = 2.54 other photographers,


  17. It would certainly seem that there is little room for error, but any reasonable “error” has probably been accounted for. Why do you think these things cost so much? The level of precision is amazing. Consider the difference between a Yugo and a Formula1 car, and that’s probably close to the difference beween a Roomba and the Curiosity.

    Besides, building space probes is JPL’s specialty: I’m not going to even pretend that I can question their competency.

    BTW, the large spheres are fuel tanks for the rocket. The RTG is the large blocky aparatus protruding at ~30 degree angle from the “back” of the rover, opposite the arm.

    Also, the two cameras are fixed focus: One is a 100mm telephoto, the other a 34mm wide-angle. James Cameron was apparently working with NASA to build an alternative camera pair with two identical zoom lenses, so they could produce nice 3D images, but it isn’t ready yet, so has been shelved.

    1. any reasonable “error” has probably been accounted for.

      So they’ve remembered to convert from English to metric units this time, huh?

      Sorry. Couldn’t resist. ;-)

  18. One thing, that has me wondering, is why aren’t there any unmanned Robot vehicles being tested on the moon.

    To me, it’d seem like the perfect “space simulator”, and it’s a fair sight closer to home, so shorter delays from launch to touch down.

    Mars is interesting, but to me it just seems…well slightly negligent not to fully probe that big hunk of rock hanging “right there”.

    Get me right, this is in no way meant to be negative or to say that the Curio (new hip name?) isn’t marvellous, just me wondering.

    With regards Klavs

    1. Different project, yes. This one takes off for Mars around Thanksgiving and lands in summer 2012. (I can’t wait!)

  19. It is certainly very intricate and full of technology, all very cool. But if this is the kind of whip we’re going to be pushing around the galaxy, I don’t think we’ll get many chicks.

    Just sayin’.

  20. Is it just me or does it seem like there is a LOT of exposed wiring and components. I assume there is another “skin” that covers all the bits and bobs, but its still un-nerving to think of Martian dust covering all that lovely tech.

    1. Anon,

      Yeah, agreed about the exposed wiring. I would think, however, that one of the design considerations for every part on the spacecraft is weight. A body/shell for the vehicle might weigh too much to be useful, and it also might cover up bits that the techs want to look at in case something goes wrong with the craft. I would guess that visual confirmation of a short or broken piece of hardware adds more value to the troubleshooting as opposed to a problem being indicated by the onboard electronics. Just a guess.

      I do have to say that Curiosity is one beautiful piece of machinery. As another poster mentioned, I wonder about the possibility of making a smaller version to be landed on the moon. Possible? And, because I’m a cynical jackass–why can’t more of the rich folks in the world be interested in doing something like that on their own? Ah…what am I thinking? Somebody get me another bottle of Cristal and a diamond-coated iPhone, STAT!

  21. Extremely interesting. Thank-you.

    Now I’d like to know something of the computer configuarion for the rover.

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