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A new project by an Australian team has revealed the complete structure of the first stage of the Curiosity Martian lander, revealing that the device is actually designed to function like a miniature spaceship.

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The “dummy rover” called Curiosity was built with four components that were separated from the spacecraft during the launch on Nov. 26, 2012. The main vehicle was replaced by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on April 5 and that mission was followed by a much larger rover, Curiosity, that is currently on the surface. But there is a large gap in the history of the rover, and that is the lander itself. The structure of the first stage is made up of several steel tubes, each connected to an aluminum core that sits beneath. It is essentially a giant rocket that makes up the space between the vehicle and the ground, where oxygen and a liquid methane mix is pumped in to fuel the vehicle.


Now, a group of engineers at Australian National University led by PhD student Luke Tappin says that they have managed to take a close look inside one of the tubes, as well as identify the “molecular properties” of the two components. The team is now testing how each portion of the structure interacts with other components on the spacecraft.

“These properties will enable us to engineer components which are the same size, size performance and power consumption as those found on previous Mars probes,” Michael Smith, a spokesperson for Australia’s Australian Space Agency (ASA), announced to the Australian Science Media Centre. “We are looking forward to the results of the next phase of analysis to better understand this important piece in the puzzle.”

The first piece of the spacecraft is a 2.25-ton metal cylinder with a diameter of 7.9 inches, which is called the “nose cap” for a reason. The structure, made of two pieces and measuring about 14.4 inches (35 centimeters) across, is made up of four steel plates with some aluminum and some carbon steel to form the nose. An instrument called the Mast Camera (Mastcam) is attached to the nose cap to provide panoramic stereo pictures of the landing area. It also collects data about the composition of the soil on the Martian surface.

Once NASA completed the lander, there were still some problems to overcome. “The nose cap was quite a complicated design to get right,” Smith says. “It required welding to fit with the existing spacecraft structure, so the end result worked quite well.”