While it looks like an UFO from Area 51, this is just the bottom part of the Mars Science Laboratory Rover aeroshell, the largest aeroshell in the history of space exploration at 4.5 metres in diameter, bigger than the almost four metres of the Apollo capsule heatshield. However, this is just not a simple protective device. This aeroshell will actually float in the middle of Mars' atmosphere, using a crane to softly land the rover itself in a complete new approach to planetary touch downs.
According to Steve Jolly, from Lockheed Martin, "the biggest challenge for the MSL aeroshell is its gigantic size. It's almost double the size of our Mars Exploration Rovers' [Spirit and Opportunity]aeroshells. When you are building a structure that big, there are many considerations we had to take into account, including the fact that this is a lifting capsule that is steerable."
It was delivered last week to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and it's just half of the two-part shell that will encapsulate the rover during the travel to Mars and the descent. You can bet that a lot of dumb crazy martians—wearing their silly tinfoil hats—will be thinking this is actually an UFO while, obviously, it is just a exploration spaceship from another planet. [Lockheed Martin]