back to article NASA's nuclear Mars tank gets improved cooker mod

NASA's nuclear-powered robot laser tank, which the agency plans to land on Mars in 2012, will now be enhanced with a new automated lab experiment intended to discover evidence of life on the red planet. It's inventor seems confident that life - or anyway evidence of life in the past - is there to be found. "Mars was a lot …


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  1. iamapizza

    Those 5 words

    "NUCLEAR-POWERED ROBOT LASER TANK" - Did anyone else need to change their pants when they read this?

  2. Hermes Conran

    Trust a woman,

    to design a nuclear powered laser tank, with a kitchen!

    1. TeeCee Gold badge


      Is it actually a Nuclear Powered Robotic Laser Tank that *transforms into* a kitchen?

      "Eat flapjack, Martian Decepticon scum!"

  3. Neil Stansbury


    Could someone explain why, now having had a high number of successful landings on Mars NASA would now choose such a horribly complex completely new landing process?

    1. mwk

      Because otherwise they'll never learn how to?

      They need controlled landings to put things on the ground where all the interesting stuff is. Boulders, craters and crevices do not make for good bounce-landing sites, but they're where a lot of the science is. That method looks obscene, but it allows for better placement and site selection, stops the rover being impeded by the landing gear or trapped on a landing platform and the rover's own suspension can handle any small surface irregularities.

    2. John Smith 19 Gold badge

      @ Neil Stansbury

      "Could someone explain why, now having had a high number of successful landings on Mars NASA would now choose such a horribly complex completely new landing process?"

      I'll take a crack. There are 2 issues. One is the concern of using rocket retro-rockets firing down to landing and igniting perchorates, which (it's hypothesised) burnt off any organic remnnats of life during the Viking missions. It's also a *lot* bigger than the 2 previous rovers which would have need much bigger crash bags. IIRC this is roughly 10kg versus 1500Kg.

      The combination of these constraints gave rise to this "Skyhook" landing mode. It is complex (not to mention needing the top section to fly off and crash safetly out of the way) but should work. Note parachutes are a non starter given the mass (Viking handed it with landing rockets. But that's the point. you can't use them).

    3. xenny

      @Neil Stansbury

      There are quite tight limits on how much mass the existing Entry Descent and Landing (EDL) can handle. Additionally, they're very inaccurate, and limited to areas of high (for mars) atmospheric pressure, which translates to low altitudes. The new, excitingly complex mechanism allows for a heavier payload, at higher altitude, and should also allow a high precision landing.

      Landing precision is important for a rover that is used to look at rock outcroppings, as it's possible to land near them safely rather than either avoiding them completely and having a long drive to a site of interest by targeting a smooth landing area, or risking disaster by landing with poor accuracy amongst them.

  4. Yorkshirepudding

    full of win

    sounds like something Prof farnsworth would dream up, driven by atomic supermen

  5. NogginTheNog


    Does anyone else feel it's wrong to be sending a vehicle to another world powered by hazardous material (which will still be so for many many years after the vehicle has ceased to be useful), which includes plans to kill alien lifeforms, even if they are only microscopic ones??!

    Or is it just 'cos I watched The Day The Earth Stood Still (the Michael Rennie original natch) on DVD yesterday instead of getting to work through the snow..? ;-)

  6. ravenviz Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    Landing video

    I thought the graphic of the landing was good, like the way they've jazzed it up with contemporary shaky cam effects (a bit like Firefly). What I did find interesting though was the whole deployment, probe detachment, thrusters, parachute *and* extension lines for a soft a landing as possible straight onto the wheels - wow. I can no doubt think of a few ways that goes wrong, high winds, landing on the edge of a crater etc. How much AI is in the landing module?

  7. austint


    ...will surely have something to say about us Earthies cooking up what's left of his cousins out there.

    1. Mark Monaghan


      Well let's hope they do a proper job then - we wouldn't want another half-baked Martian coming and posting here, would we.

  8. Mike Moyle
    Thumb Up

    "nuclear-powered robot laser tank..."

    Bolo Mk. 0.1(beta)

    1. sT0rNG b4R3 duRiD
      Paris Hilton

      who'd win?

      Dinochrome brigade vs Skynet vs The Matrix..


  9. Schultz

    We come in peace...

    let's not tell the Martians about the lasers quite yet. Or that we plan to fry them in a fancy oven.

    Will one lander be enough to conquer the all the (microbial) colonies?

  10. jubtastic1

    Absurdly complicated landing FTL

    The nuclear mars tank lays on its back, its belly cooling in the weak sun, spinning its wheels trying to turn itself over, but it can't. Not without your help. But you're not helping. Why is that?

    1. Anonymous Coward

      "Why is that?"

      Because I'm a tiny microscopic bacteria and I don't have any bloody arms, that's why! And even if I did I wouldn't help the bastard, it wants to fry my family!

      I dunno, bloody foreign killer laser nuclear-powered death robots, coming over here, taking our sand and cooking our women....(cont. p.94)

  11. Ugotta B. Kiddingme
    Thumb Up

    HERE's an idea

    Send Curiosity with it's nuclear power plant to rescue plucky little Spirit.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    Prepare for dustoff and nuke the site from orbit

    That landing sequence didn't half remind me of the (ace) dropship deploying the APV in Aliens!

    1. sT0rNG b4R3 duRiD


      1. Landing in daylight.

      2. Landing in an open plain.

      3. High altitude opening.

      4. No chaff / decoys

      5. No suppression fire.

      6. Sending JUST one tank?

      How many Nuclear powered robot laser tanks are you going to lose?

      Send a bolo, imho, it's the only way to be sure.

  13. Tom Paine

    MSL EDL: the Skycrane

    @Neil Stansbury

    "Could someone explain why, now having had a high number of successful landings on Mars NASA would now choose such a horribly complex completely new landing process?"

    I'll have a go.

    ("EDL" = "entry, descent, landing", aka The Six Minutes of Terror.)

    The problem is mass. MSL is a huge beast, the general size comparison for the USians is "VW Beetle-sized". This is significantly bigger than the Phoenix lander (2008, EDL consisted of with aerobraking with a heatshield, then hypersonic parachutes, then drop out the bottom of the backshell and fly down to the surface on small thrusters) and the wildly over-successful MERs, Spirit and Opportunity (EDL: aerobraking, hypersonic parachutes, rapel down a line, inflate airbags, fire last-minute hack sideways-motion-damping rocket half-way up the stack, cut tether, bounce to a standstill, deflate airbags, self-right, open up.) MER was pushing the envelope on the mass that airbags can cope with; MSL would shred 'em in seconds, with unfortunate consequences (lithobraking.) There's also the problem that because the Martian atmosphere is so thin, you really need to land at as low an elevation as possible, so that your chute gets the chance to slow you down to the sort of speeds where you can fire up forward-facing thrusters: these tend not to like starting up with pointing into hypersonic airflows.

    What I don't know, off-hand, is why they need the tether/bridle/winch mechanism, rather than flying the whole stack down to the surface, releasing the rover on contact, and then flying off to make an interesting hole in the nearby scenery. Of course, that doesn't mean there isn't a very good one, just that I don't know / have forgotten it :>

    1. TeeCee Gold badge

      Winches 'n stuff.

      I'm guessing that the bridle/winch arrangement obviates the need for a soft landing capability and a completely flat and level surface to land on, as hovering-within-limits somewhere around the right altitude above something vaguely flattish should be entirely adequate here. Remember, there's no nice Mr Armstrong at the controls to go: "That looks a bit lumpy you stupid computer, let's go over there".

      Having said that, I'd have thought that relying on all the bridle cables detaching themselves from the lab as one at the right moment is rather high risk. If one of those release clips fails they can kiss the mission goodbye as far as I can see. I'll bet the carrier doesn't have enough fuel to sit up there hovering while the lab asks control on earth for instructions....

  14. Bounty


    Just make sure they test it first in a sand trap, and then in the Atacama Desert to verify it can find signs of life in rough places before you send it to Mars.

  15. Ron1

    Sound on Mars? Yeah, right!

    Since Mars's atmosphere is 96% CO2 and atmospheric pressure is about 150 times lower than Earth's, I'm pretty sure all those (seemingly hundreds of) actuator motors can not be heard as in the video...

    Instead of those stupid sci-fi like sounds, NASA (as a scientific rather than sci-fi org) should add a narrative to explain the complicated procedures seen on video...

    Plus judging by the partially shielded cylinder with cooling fins on the front part of the "tank", the "nuclear" seems to be a standard RTG, but "nuclear powered" sure sounds more sensational than "radioisotope thermoelectric generator powered".

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