Credit: Lockheed Martin

Credit: Lockheed Martin

NASA’s next Mars rover’s massive heat shield is finally ready for the robot. It is the largest heat shield ever built for a spacecraft destined for the red planet. The extra size is needed because this rover – dubbed Curiosity – is about the size of a small car and could endure temperatures up to 3,800 degrees F when it enters the Martian atmosphere.

The thermal protection system is a combination of reinforced carbon-carbon on the wing leading edge, thermal blankets on the fuselage and thermal protective ceramic tiles covering the underside of the vehicle and its nose cap. Curiosity‘s heat shield is a large aero shell is made of a material called phenolic impregnated carbon ablator, developed at NASA Ames Research Center

The heat shield was manufactured by Lockheed Martin and is claimed to be the largest unit of its kind ever built. It’s 4.5 meters wide, including the back shell. That is a dimension larger than the heat shields for the Apollo spacecraft (under 4 meters) and the ones used for the current Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity (2.6 meters).

Uniquely, once Curiosity’s vehicle enters the Martian atmosphere, parachutes will first deploy to slow its descent, and it will jettison its heat shield. Then, using thrusters, part of the vehicle becames a “floating crane” that use a cable system to gently lower Curiousity to the surface of Mars. Confused? Watch this brief animation of how the rover will land and all will be clear.

Curiosity (formally known as the Mars Science Laboratory) is scheduled to launch in the fall of 2011. Its mission is to gather scientific data to help determine whether there is or was life on Mars.