There are tags for mars-science-laboratory and curiosity but I don't really understand how the Mars Science Laboratory begins and the Curiosity Rover begins conceptually, spatially, or chronologically.

Starting from the "Cruise stage" after MSL separated from the Centaur upper stage, could someone explain at which point various objects separated, and how the names evolved? I call the rover Curiosity, but is it also still part of MSL? Does the sky crane device have an official name? Are there any parts that are still in orbit around Mars?

I'm not looking for a recreation of Wikipedia's article on the Timeline of Mars Science Laboratory, just a "part count" and evolution of the names of each.

This question is motivated by my mulling of the phrase Mars Science Laboratory's Curiosity Rover, I'm still not sure if Curiosity is part of MSL, or an "offspring" mission, or what exactly the relationship between the two terms really is.


1 Answer 1


The name of the entire mission is MSL, the Curiosity rover is part of that mission, and the only part operational today. Example of how NASA uses the two names:

Mars Science Laboratory arrived at Mars through technological innovations that tested a completely new landing method. The spacecraft descended on a parachute, then during the final seconds before landing, the landing system fired rockets to allow it to hover while a tether lowered Curiosity to the surface. The rover landed on its wheels, the tether was cut, and the landing system flew off to crash-land a safe distance away.

After separation from the Centaur, MSL consisted of 3 items:

  1. Cruise stage
  2. EDL system
  3. Curiosity.

enter image description here

(cruise stage on left, aeroshell is second and fifth from the left, sky crane third, rover fourth)

The cruise stage:

The cruise stage carried the MSL spacecraft through the void of space and delivered it to Mars. The cruise stage has its own miniature propulsion system, consisting of eight thrusters using hydrazine fuel in two titanium tanks.[117] It also has its own electric power system, consisting of a solar array and battery for providing continuous power. Upon reaching Mars, the spacecraft stopped spinning and a cable cutter separated the cruise stage from the aeroshell.[117] Then the cruise stage was diverted into a separate trajectory into the atmosphere.

The EDL system consists of:

  • an aeroshell (heat shield)
  • parachute systems
  • sky crane

All elements of the cruise stage and EDL system landed on Mars. Curiosity made a soft landing, the other parts crashed in various places:

enter image description here

MRO later made images of the crash site of the cruise stage.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Yes, that's a good summary. $\endgroup$
    – Hobbes
    Apr 7, 2018 at 9:56
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Thanks for breaking it down into five easy pieces. Any idea where the cruise stage and aeroshell components are now? Should I ask separately? (the "Are there any parts that are still in orbit around Mars?" part of the question.) $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Apr 7, 2018 at 10:00
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    $\begingroup$ @uhoh Aeroshell is made of backshell (attached to parachute) and heatshield; both crashed on surface (see picture in answer). Cruise stage, without any thermal protection, was partially consumed by air drag during reentry, but something reachee the surface, as also balance mass did: mars.nasa.gov/mro/multimedia/images/?ImageID=4923 $\endgroup$
    – jumpjack
    Mar 18, 2021 at 8:37
  • $\begingroup$ @jumpjack excellent! $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Mar 18, 2021 at 9:20

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