Skip to Content

The Mars Rover Curiosity Marks a Technological Triumph

This wasn’t just a small improvement over previous rovers on the Red Planet.

In a news conference last month, John Grunsfeld, head of NASA’s science directorate, admitted that he and his colleagues were anxious about what would happen when the $2.5 billion rover named Curiosity descended onto Mars. “This is risky business,” he said, with a proud little smile. We know today that everything worked out all right—the one-ton robot landed safely on Mars, exactly as planned—but don’t let that fool you into thinking that any fretting in the halls of NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory had been overblown. Curiosity represented a giant step forward in our technological prowess in space.

To see how the robot did its thing, check out this animated video JPL produced, or this one. They explain Curiosity’s remarkable landing method, in which the rover was lowered by parachute and a thin “sky crane” right into place. This was required because the robot was too big to be bounced onto the ground with air bags, the method used for previous rovers. The landing wasn’t the only ingenious thing: for the next two years, Curiosity will be going further and doing more than previous Mars explorers have, firing lasers at rocks and analyzing their contents as part of a quest to determine whether Mars ever might have supported life.

One striking and humbling thing about Curiosity is that this is nothing compared to what will be required if our civilization-scale dreams of human exploration or even settlement of Mars are to come to fruition. Set aside for now all the questions of how humans would live on Mars: even the landing itself has to be figured out. It was a huge achievement to get a one-ton rover onto Mars today. To get humans and all the gear necessary to support them will require a lander that weighs 10 or 20 times as much. NASA says the sky crane won’t work for that.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

The miracle molecule that could treat brain injuries and boost your fading memory

Discovered more than a decade ago, a remarkable compound shows promise in treating everything from Alzheimer’s to brain injuries—and it just might improve your cognitive abilities.

wet market selling fish
wet market selling fish

This scientist now believes covid started in Wuhan’s wet market. Here’s why.

How a veteran virologist found fresh evidence to back up the theory that covid jumped from animals to humans in a notorious Chinese market—rather than emerged from a lab leak.

Conceptual illustration showing a file folder with the China flag and various papers flying out of it
Conceptual illustration showing a file folder with the China flag and various papers flying out of it

The US crackdown on Chinese economic espionage is a mess. We have the data to show it.

The US government’s China Initiative sought to protect national security. In the most comprehensive analysis of cases to date, MIT Technology Review reveals how far it has strayed from its goals.

conceptual illustration showing various women's faces being scanned
conceptual illustration showing various women's faces being scanned

A horrifying new AI app swaps women into porn videos with a click

Deepfake researchers have long feared the day this would arrive.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.