By Marisa Mazart
We Earthlings are endlessly fascinated by Mars and that curiosity has driven the development of the Mars Curiosity Rover. Over the past few decades we have hurled all manner of probes and whirring robots at its dessicated surface, looking for clues to its ancient, watery past. Following in the footsteps of mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity comes “Curiosity,” the most advanced probe yet sent to another world. It has a number of goals on the rocky surface, but job one is the search for microbial martian life.
Curiosity is larger and heavier than its predecessors. This nine-foot-long rolling laboratory will land in an area most likely to be favorable for life. The rover is a veritable Swiss Army knife, equipped with a bevy of tools to vaporize rock, search for organic compounds, study targets from a distance, examine objects it touches, and analyze the composition of rock and soil samples.
The portly Mars Curiosity rover has a strict landing procedure to make sure everything runs smoothly. Unlike the airbag landing system of the previous rovers, Curiosity starts with a parachute that slows the rover’s descent toward Mars. After that a rocket pack will lower Curiosity via tether during the final, heartstopping moments before landing. The whole approach gives NASA much more precision on the final landing zone, which with any luck will be in Mars’ Gale Crater.
How The Curiosity Mars Rover Works
Once on the ground, Curiosity’s six wheels and individual steering motors will propel it slowly across the the Martian terrain. One notable improvement over Spirit and Opportunity is the Curiosity’s ability to perform 360 degree turns. This and wheels that double the size of the previous rovers’ promise to make this the most mobile rover yet, able to climb over obstacles 30 inches high.
Powering all this is a radioisotope nuclear battery. Whereas Spirit and Opportunity were at the mercy of the Martian elements for their solar power, this battery will continually power the rover, extending operating time and allowing it to venture much farther from the Martian equator than its sunlight-dependent predecessors.
When Mars Rover Curiosity Touches Down
After Curiosity lands in 2012, its multi-talented robotic arm will be the star of the show. It will be the only way to get the rover’s impressive suite of tools down to the Martian surface. After the arm collects a sample, Curiosity will drop it into one of the devices in the onboard laboratory.
If all this leaves you a little curious yourself, NASA’s website features a host of multimedia information, including a live stream of the rover’s construction.
Soon, the Curiosity Mars rover will be shipped from California to Kennedy Space Center for its eventual launch. It should be well on its way by the end of this year, and NASA will be guiding it in for a landing sometime next August. NASA hopes to get at least one martian year out of the rover, but will likely use the Mars Curiosity rover until it is no longer functional, as it did with the long-lived Spirit and Opportunity rovers.