The Curiosity rover has a compact X-band high-gain antenna (HGA) that allows for low data rate communication directly with Earth, but is used though for higher data rates it usually uses UHF to communicate with spacecraft orbiting Mars, which then relay the data back to Earth with their much larger dish antennas. Thanks to @BrendanLuke15 for the correction!

enter image description here

From Section 5.1 and Figure 5-1 on page number 113 of the DESCANSO article linked below:

The uplink communication to the spacecraft is either with X-band DFE with the DSN or UHF through MRO. Downlink, governed by data volume requirements, is UHF relay only, as shown in Figure 5-1.

From Section 2.2, Surface Operations of Article 14 of the DESCANSO Design and Performance Summary Series Mars Science Laboratory Telecommunications System Design one can see that the HGA needs to point in the correct direction within a few degrees;

The HGA sits on a 2 degree-of-freedom gimbal, with 5-deg system pointing accuracy (including rover attitude knowledge), and is 0.28 m in diameter. Table 2-4 shows that the downlink gain is about 4 dB lower and the uplink gain about 3 dB lower, at 5 deg off boresight.

How does Curiosity get its "rover attitude knowledge"? Also, since the position of Earth is moving with respect to Mars, as is that of the satellites around Mars, How does Curiosity know how to slew the antenna correctly in real time? Does it cary an ephemeris which is updated from time to time via uplink?

Curiosity's High Gain Antenna

above: Curiosity's High Gain Antenna (articulated dirty hexagon). Cropped from here.

below: Curiosity's High Gain Antenna gain in uplink and downlink modes, from MSL Telecommunications System Design.

Curiosity's High Gain Antenna gain Curiosity's High Gain Antenna gain

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    $\begingroup$ Earlier Mars rovers used a sun-finding camera + accelerometers to fix their attitude; I couldn’t find an equivalent paper on Curiosity. pdfs.semanticscholar.org/55bf/… $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 14, 2018 at 18:11
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    $\begingroup$ From what I can tell, the high gain talks to earth at a low data rate, and the omni antenna can hear the DSN at a low rate and talk to Mars orbiting relays at high rates. To track earth I'm guessing a sun tracker and ephemeris is plenty. A start tracker could probably find earth directly, but that's probably overkill. Navcam could serve as the sun tracker, since they're already doing object detection onboard. All guesswork though. $\endgroup$
    – Saiboogu
    Commented Apr 14, 2018 at 18:34
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    $\begingroup$ From the link provided by @Russel I would like to highlight one interesting statement in the paper. The rovers did not have gyrocompassing which can looks for mars rotation vector. The rotation vector can be used with position to calculate the coarse attitude if camera failed at anytime. $\endgroup$
    – zephyr0110
    Commented Apr 15, 2018 at 10:40
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    $\begingroup$ @Prakhar I've just asked What is a gyrocompass and how might one be be used by a planetary rover? $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Apr 15, 2018 at 10:58
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    $\begingroup$ The rover does not use the x-band HGA to communicate with the orbiters $\endgroup$ Commented May 20, 2021 at 11:26

1 Answer 1


This answer is based on a book called "The Design and Engineering of Curiosity"


On chapter 6 it is mention that

The Hazcams and Navcams are flight spares or build-to-print copies of the engineering cameras of the same names on the Mars Exploration Rovers; this not only saved money in hardware, but made it significantly easier to use a modified version of the same rover driving software for Curiosity as for Spirit and Opportunity.

We can assume that the Surface Attitude Position and Pointing (SAPP) is similar to the one used in the Mars Exploration Rover. Because of that, we can rely on a paper called "Mars Exploration Rover Engineering Cameras"


It seems that the attitude information is collected from two main sources: an inertial measurement unit and the rover cameras. The IMU provides the rover's roll and pitch angles (Nadir vector) by measuring gravity acceleration. The NAV cameras are used to calculate the Sun position.

If the rover position is known it is possible to calculate the sun position in an inertial frame (J2000) using a well-known model. Combining this knowledge with the Nadir vector and sun vector measurement can be used for estimating the robot's attitude and the antenna attitude as well.

enter image description here

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for your answer. The Engineering Cameras paper looks great! I'll give it a read. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Apr 22, 2018 at 20:56
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    $\begingroup$ Bottom line: accelerometers give down, Sun gives azimuth. On-board ephemerides of Earth, Mars, and the location of the rover on Mars, all of which are kept up-to-date by the operations team, allow the HGA to be slewed to track Earth in the sky. There is one more critical instrument and calibration required: the current time. $\endgroup$
    – Mark Adler
    Commented Apr 23, 2018 at 0:46
  • $\begingroup$ @MarkAdler any thoughts, or corrections? space.stackexchange.com/a/30829/12102 $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Sep 21, 2018 at 23:39
  • $\begingroup$ @MarkAdler I've quoted your answer-as-comment in How are Spacecraft Event Times (SETs) managed; to what timescales are they linked? perhaps you can spare a few more? I miss your posts and I'm sure others do as well! $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Mar 2, 2020 at 1:46

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