REVIEW: HOT WHEELS MARS ROVER CURIOSITY
While I am certainly a fan of space-based science fiction, such as Star Trek, Star Wars, and so forth, I have also long followed the real world of space exploration. I am old enough to recall -- as a very young child -- watching the early Gemini spacewalks on one of the few color televisions on the block at the time (it helped that my father was an executive in the news media). I certainly remember the Apollo missions, and I recall the tragedies of the Space Shuttles Challenger and Columbia.
One time I was in Florida with a friend of mine. We were at Walt Disney World, and there was a shuttle launch while we were there. Although we didn't go to the launch site, we were able to see the Shuttle ascend into space, even from where we were in Disney World. Some years later, I was again at Walt Disney World, as part of the 2004 Official G.I. Joe Collectors' Convention, and for a select number of pre-registrants, there was a special tour of the Kennedy Space Center. That was one of the big draws for my attending the Convention.
Today, I feel, our space program is a shambles. The Space Shuttles have been retired, our access to the International Space Station is dependent upon other nations, and too few people seem to care about the proper exploration of our "final frontier", as it were. I find this distressing, disturbing, and highly upsetting, to put it mildly.
In my opinion, we should long since have had a permanent presence on the moon, and set human foot on Mars. Neither of these things have happened. I'd like to think they still might in my lifetime, but I can't say I'm especially optimistic about that.
However, this does not mean that we have totally abandoned space. There have been any number of space probes that have flown past the Solar System's outer planets and their moons, and made astounding scientific discoveries. And we have been successfully placing landers and rovers on our neighboring planet, Mars, and have learned quite a great deal about the fourth planet in our star system, starting with the Viking probes of the 1970's, and with rovers starting with the Sojourner rover that was part of the Pathfinder mission in the late 1990's.
I'll tell you a little secret about that Sojourner rover. It had a twin. Its twin was used as part of a display in an area of Tomorrowland at Disneyland. I saw it several times. The presentation included a video featuring the construction of the Pathfinder vessel that carried Sojourner to Mars, and of Sojourner's safe landing and release onto the Martian landscape.
At this point, the lander that was present in Tomorrowland typically started out of a holding area, and neatly rolled across a pre-programmed path on a simulated Martian landscape. That is, usually it did this. Somehow or other, the rover kept developing problems, and wouldn't cooperate.
One day, I saw a technician from NASA -- not Disney -- working on it. He wasn't entirely sure what was the matter with it, but he did drop a tidbit of news that I've always remembered. I'll admit, I have no way to verify it, but it at least makes for a good story. The rather glitchy rover that was stationed at Tomorrowland was very nearly the one that went to Mars. Given how well the Sojourner that did go to Mars performed, and given how poorly the one that stayed behind acted -- to the point where they finally just posed it on the Martian landscape and left it -- I think it's a good thing there was a trade-off.
Now, at this point, you might be thinking that you accidentally called up the Web Site for NASA, or JPL, or the Planetary Society, or some such. What's all this got to do with any sort of toy review? In 1997, Mattel, through their Hot Wheels line, released an "Action Pack" featuring a small version of the Pathfinder probe, and a Hot Wheels-type vehicle of the Sojourner vehicle. Obviously I snapped this up at the earliest opportunity.
And now, there is a Hot Wheels car of the most recent rover to make it to Mars -- CURIOSITY. And a whole lot of people have been snapping them up because I had to resort to online methods to get it. I have yet to see it at retail despite the fact that the package design is the same as that of any standard individual Hot Wheels car. Those "Angry Birds" Hot Wheels cars are easier to find than this -- which actually makes me think that maybe some people do still care about our space exploration endeavors.
Let's consider some of the history of the Curiosity Rover, and what it's capable of, and then have a look at its Hot Wheels counterpart. Prepare yourself for some serious techno-speak...
Curiosity is the car-sized robotic rover exploring Gale Crater on Mars as part of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission (MSL).
Curiosity was launched from Cape Canaveral on November 26, 2011, at 10:02 EST aboard the MSL spacecraft and successfully landed on Aeolis Palus in Gale Crater on Mars on August 6, 2012, 05:17 UTC. The Bradbury Landing site was less than 1.5 miles from the center of the rover's touchdown target after a 350,000,000 mile journey. That's some impressive aim...!
The rover's goals include: investigation of the Martian climate and geology; assessment of whether the selected field site inside Gale Crater has ever offered environmental conditions favorable for microbial life, including investigation of the role of water; and planetary habitability studies in preparation for future human exploration.
Curiosity's design will serve as the basis for a planned unnamed 2020 Mars rover mission. In December 2012, Curiosity's two-year mission was extended indefinitely.
As established by the Mars Exploration Program, the main scientific goals of the MSL mission are to help determine whether Mars could ever have supported life, as well as determining the role of water, and to study the climate and geology of Mars. The mission will also help prepare for human exploration -- let's hope it happens. To contribute to these goals, MSL has these main scientific objectives:
Biological: Determine the nature and inventory of organic carbon compounds; Investigate the chemical building blocks of life (carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur); Identify features that may represent the effects of biological processes (biosignatures)...
Geological and geochemical: Investigate the chemical, isotopic, and mineralogical composition of the Martian surface and near-surface geological materials; Interpret the processes that have formed and modified rocks and soils...
Planetary process: Assess long-timescale (i.e., 4-billion-year) Martian atmospheric evolution processes; Determine present state, distribution, and cycling of water and carbon dioxide...
Surface radiation: Characterize the broad spectrum of surface radiation, including galactic radiation, cosmic radiation, solar proton events and secondary neutrons.
As part of its exploration, it also measured the radiation exposure in the interior of the spacecraft as it traveled to Mars, and it is continuing radiation measurements as it explores the surface of Mars. This data would be important for a future manned mission.
Curiosity comprised 23% of the mass of the 8,580 lb Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) spacecraft, which had the sole mission of delivering the rover safely across space from Earth to a soft landing on the surface of Mars. Curiosity has a mass of 1,980 lb including 180 lb of scientific instruments. The rover is 9.5 ft long by 8.9 ft wide by 7.2 ft in height. Curiosity is powered by a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG), like the successful Viking Mars landers in 1976.
The two identical on-board rover computers, called "Rover Compute Element" (RCE), contain radiation hardened memory to tolerate the extreme radiation from space and to safeguard against power-off cycles. Each computer's memory includes 256 kB of EEPROM, 256 MB of DRAM, and 2 GB of flash memory. This compares to 3 MB of EEPROM, 128 MB of DRAM, and 256 MB of flash memory used in the Mars Exploration Rovers. The RCE computers use the RAD750 CPU, which is a successor to the RAD6000 CPU used in the Mars Exploration Rovers. The RAD750 CPU is capable of up to 400 MIPS, while the RAD6000 CPU is capable of up to 35 MIPS. Of the two on-board computers, one is configured as backup, and will take over in the event of problems with the main computer.
Curiosity is equipped with significant telecommunication redundancy by several means – an X-band transmitter and receiver that can communicate directly with Earth, and a UHF Electra-Lite software-defined radio for communicating with Mars orbiters. Communication with orbiters is expected to be the main path for data return to Earth, since the orbiters have both more power and larger antennas than the lander allowing for faster transmission speeds. JPL is the central data distribution hub where selected data products are provided to remote science operations sites as needed. JPL is also the central hub for the uplink process, though participants are distributed at their respective home institutions. At landing, telemetry was monitored by three orbiters, depending on their dynamic location: the Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and ESA's Mars Express satellite.
Curiosity is equipped with six 20-inch diameter wheels in a rocker-bogie suspension. The suspension system also served as landing gear for the vehicle. Each wheel has cleats and is independently actuated and geared, providing for climbing in soft sand and scrambling over rocks. Each front and rear wheel can be independently steered, allowing the vehicle to turn in place as well as execute arcing turns. Each wheel has a pattern that helps it maintain traction but also leaves patterned tracks in the sandy surface of Mars. That pattern is used by on-board cameras to judge the distance traveled. The pattern itself is Morse code for "JPL" (·--- ·--· ·-··). Who says scientists don't have a sense of humor?
The rover is capable of climbing sand dunes with slopes up to 12.5 degrees. Based on the center of mass, the vehicle can withstand a tilt of at least 50 degrees in any direction without overturning, but automatic sensors will limit the rover from exceeding 30-degree tilts. Curiosity will be able to roll over obstacles approaching 26 inches in height, and it has a ground clearance of 24 inches.
The general sample analysis strategy begins with high resolution cameras to look for features of interest. If a particular surface is of interest, Curiosity can vaporize a small portion of it with an infrared laser and examine the resulting spectra signature to query the rock's elemental composition. If that signature is intriguing, the rover will use its long arm to swing over a microscope and an X-ray spectrometer to take a closer look. If the specimen warrants further analysis, Curiosity can drill into the boulder and deliver a powdered sample to either the SAM or the CheMin analytical laboratories inside the rover. The MastCam, Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), and Mars Descent Imager (MARDI) cameras were developed by Malin Space Science Systems and they all share common design components, such as on-board electronic imaging processing boxes, 1600×1200 CCDs, and a RGB Bayer pattern filter.
It has 17 cameras: HazCams (8), NavCams (4), MastCams (2), MAHLI (1), MARDI(1), and ChemCam (1).
The MastCam system provides multiple spectra and true-color imaging with two cameras. The cameras can take true-color images at 1600×1200 pixels and up to 10 frames per second hardware-compressed, video at 720p (1280×720).
ChemCam has the ability to record up to 6,144 different wavelengths of ultraviolet, visible, and infrared light. Detection of the ball of luminous plasma will be done in the visible, near-UV and near-infrared ranges, between 240 nm and 800 nm. The first initial laser testing of the ChemCam by Curiosity on Mars was performed on a rock, N165 ("Coronation" rock), near Bradbury Landing on August 19, 2012. The ChemCam team expects to take approximately one dozen compositional measurements of rocks per day.
The rover has two pairs of black and white navigation cameras mounted on the mast to support ground navigation. The cameras have a 45 degree angle of view and use visible light to capture stereoscopic 3-D imagery. These cameras, like those on the Mars Pathfinder missions support use of the ICER image compression format.
The Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS) comprises instruments to measure the Mars environment: humidity, pressure, temperatures, wind speeds, and ultraviolet radiation. It is a meteorological package that includes an ultraviolet sensor provided by the Spanish Ministry of Education and Science. All sensors are located around three elements: two booms attached to the rover's mast, the Ultraviolet Sensor (UVS) assembly located on the rover top deck, and the Instrument Control Unit (ICU) inside the rover body. REMS will provide new clues about the Martian general circulation, micro scale weather systems, local hydrological cycle, destructive potential of UV radiation, and subsurface habitability based on ground-atmosphere interaction.
The rover has four pairs of black and white navigation cameras called hazcams—two pairs in the front and two pairs in the back. They are used for autonomous hazard avoidance during rover drives and for safe positioning of the robotic arm on rocks and soils. The cameras use visible light to capture stereoscopic 3-D imagery. The cameras have a 120 degree field of view and map the terrain at up to 3 meters in front of the rover. This imagery safeguards against the rover crashing into unexpected obstacles, and works in tandem with software that allows the rover to make its own safety choices.
The Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) is a camera on the rover's robotic arm, and acquires microscopic images of rock and soil. MAHLI can take true-color images at 1600×1200 pixels with a resolution as high as 14.5 micrometers per pixel. MAHLI has an 18.3 mm to 21.3 mm focal length and a 33.8- to 38.5-degree field of view. MAHLI has both white and ultraviolet LED illumination for imaging in darkness or fluorescence imaging. MAHLI also has mechanical focusing in a range from infinite to millimeter distances
The Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS) will irradiate samples with alpha particles and map the spectra of X-rays that are re-emitted for determining the elemental composition of samples. Curiosity's APXS was developed by the Canadian Space Agency.
CheMin is the Chemistry and Mineralogy X-ray powder diffraction and fluorescence instrument. CheMin is one of four spectrometers. It can identify and quantify the abundance of the minerals on Mars. It was developed by David Blake at NASA Ames Research Center and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The rover can drill samples from rocks and the resulting fine powder is poured into the instrument via a sample inlet tube on the top of the vehicle. A beam of X-rays is then directed at the powder and the crystal structure of the minerals deflects it at characteristic angles, allowing scientists to identify the minerals being analyzed.
On October 17, 2012 at "Rocknest", the first X-ray diffraction analysis of Martian soil was performed. The results revealed the presence of several minerals, including feldspar, pyroxenes and olivine, and suggested that the Martian soil in the sample was similar to the "weathered basaltic soils" of Hawaiian volcanoes.
The Sample analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite will analyze organics and gases from both atmospheric and solid samples. The three main instruments are a Quadrupole Mass Spectrometer (QMS), a gas chromatograph (GC) and a tunable laser spectrometer (TLS). These instruments will perform precision measurements of oxygen and carbon isotope ratios in carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) in the atmosphere of Mars in order to distinguish between their geochemical or biological origin.
The Radiation assessment detector (RAD) was the first of ten MSL instruments to be turned on. Its first role was to characterize the broad spectrum of radiation environment found inside the spacecraft during the cruise phase. These measurements have never been done before from the inside of a spacecraft and their main purpose is to determine the viability and shielding needs for potential human explorers.
During the descent to the Martian surface, the Mars Descent Imager (MARDI) took color images at 1600×1200 pixels with a 1.3-millisecond exposure time starting at distances of about 3.7 km to near five meters from the ground, at a rate of four frames per second for about two minutes.
The rover has a 6.9 ft long robotic arm with a cross-shaped turret holding five devices that can spin through a 350-degree turning range. The arm makes use of three joints to extend it forward and to stow it again while driving.
Two of the five devices are in-situ or contact instruments known as the X-ray spectrometer (APXS), and the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI camera). The remaining three are associated with sample acquisition and sample preparation functions: a percussion drill, a brush, and mechanisms for scooping, sieving and portioning samples of powdered rock and soil
Curiosity has an advanced payload of scientific equipment on Mars. It is the fourth NASA unmanned surface rover sent to Mars since 1996. Previous successful Mars rovers are the Sojourner rover from the Mars Pathfinder mission (1997), the Spirit rover (2004-2010) and the Opportunity rover (2004–present). Curiosity is 9.5 ft long by 8.9 ft wide by 7.2 ft in height, larger than Mars Exploration Rovers, which are 4.9 ft long and have a mass of 380 lb.
And believe me when I say, that's a very abbreviated summary of Curiosity. For far greater details, check out anything from WikiPedia to NASA's or JPL's Web Sites. Also lots of cool pictures there, too.
So, how's the toy? Very cool, and fortunately, it is neither 9.5 feet long, nor does it weigh close to a ton. It also doesn't have a sophisticated array of scientific equipment, but I don't really think I'd want something taking soil samples, infra-red photographs, or vaporizing things with a laser around here anyway.
The Hot Wheels Curiosity Rover is two inches long -- right on the button -- 1.4 inches wide at the wheel base, and 1.5 inches high, counting the camera mast. The vehicle has been painted mostly white. The main body, made from die-cast metal, has been sculpted with a great many intricate little details, doubtless representing the various scientific instruments that Curiosity is equipped with. Among some of the more notable features are the tall mast with the cameras, and an angular ramp in the back, which I suspect is intended to receive various samples for analysis.
Some of the details on the sides of the Curiosity rover have been painted gold, silver, and black. Some of the paintwork could honestly have been a little neater. I don't know if these were perhaps hand painted, or just had sloppy stencils, or there was something weird with the paint. In fairness, some of these details are a lot finer than one might find on a more typical Hot Wheels car.
There is a black plastic frame around the base of the upper section of the vehicle, with angular sections which appear to delineate the wheel mechanism. Interestingly, the underside of the vehicle, which specifically notes NASA and JPL/Caltech, is molded from transparent plastic. How accurate this is to the one rolling along the Martian surface I can't really say.
I doubt that the wheels are entirely accurate, however. Curiosity has six wheels, but they're clearly Hot Wheels-style wheels. This is in distinct contrast to the Sojourner toy that Mattel made in 1997, which had its own wheel design. I'm not really complaining here, though. Try outfitting this little thing with wheels that leave a Morse code track that spells out "JPL". I don't blame Mattel for using their own wheels this time around.
The front of the vehicle, on the transparent section which represents the front axle, has the NASA emblem emblazoned on it, small but certainly readable.
The Hot Wheels Curiosity Rover does have a moving part, other than the six wheels. The camera mast rotates in its socket. Nice touch, really.
So, what's my final word here? I realize I spent a lot of time outlining the features of the actual Mars Curiosity Rover. But I've always believed, and still do, that we need to support our space exploration endeavors, and expand upon what we're doing, in order to return human beings to space, beyond the orbit of the Earth, as soon as possible. The rovers on Mars, including this most recent one, are an important step in that direction.
I am immensely pleased that Mattel has supported this, by bringing the Mars Curiosity Rover into their line of basic vehicles. It is NOT easily found, but at any given time, there's quite a number of them available through the "secondary market", online and elsewhere, at very reasonable prices. I'm pleased to see that this particular vehicle is obviously as well-regarded as it is.
And I believe that Mattel has done an excellent job with it. It can't have been easy to sculpt such an intricate vehicle. Sojourner was far less complex in appearance. If you've ever had any interest in the real world of space exploration -- and if you haven't, you should -- then you will definitely want to track down this fine representation of one of our latest and most impressive achievements in planetary exploration.
The HOT WHEELS MARS CURIOSITY ROVER most definitely has my highest recommendation!