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The Next Mars Rover

Curiosity is the biggest and most advanced rover ever built, designed to help answer an age-old question: Is there life on Mars?

The next rover to explore Mars is about twice as long and more than five times as heavy as any previous rover. Named Curiosity, the six-wheeled robot will study the Martian surface, analyze samples of the rocks and soil, and monitor the planet’s climate. Scientists hope its measurements can be used to determine whether or not there was—or is—life on Mars. 

Curiosity is scheduled to launch between November 25 and December 18 of 2011 and land on Mars in August 2012. It will be the first rover to use precision landing techniques to reach a specific point on the planet’s surface. In this image, engineers and scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California are testing the rocket-powered descent stage (suspended above Curiosity), which will steer the rover down to a soft landing. 

Curiosity’s landing site, announced recently by NASA, will be inside Gale crater, which is 154 kilometers in diameter. Scientists believe the location is ideal for finding clues about life’s existence; for example, the site contains clays and sulfates, both known to form in water, and it has features shaped by a history of changing environmental conditions. It took NASA, and more than 100 scientists, five years to choose Curiosity’s landing destination. The central mountain in the crater has a gentle enough slope that the rover should able to drive up it, examining layers of sediment as it goes.

Curiosity will explore Gale crater for one Martian year, equivalent to two Earth years, and it will carry 10 science instruments. On Curiosity’s mast is an instrument called ChemCam (the circle in the white box), made up of a laser and telescope. It determines the composition of rock up to seven meters away by pulsing its laser at the object and examining the resulting flash of plasma with the telescope and spectrometers.

Also on the mast are two digital color cameras (squares below white box) that will complement each other in showing the surface of Mars in unprecedented detail. Together they are considered the left and right eyes of the instrument called the MastCam. The right eye looks through a telephoto lens, revealing details near or far with resolution about three times better than any previous landscape-viewing camera used on the surface of Mars, while the left eye takes wider-angle views. 

This image is a mosaic of images taken by the left eye of the rover’s upper deck while the rover was encountering Mars surface conditions inside a space simulation chamber. Each mast camera can acquire thousands of full-color images and store them in an eight-gigabyte flash memory. The cameras can also record high-definition video. Information from the two eyes can be combined to produce 3-D images.

The largest instrument on Curiosity is the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM). It will examine samples of rocks, soil, and the atmosphere to gather information important in determining Mars’s current habitability and whether the planet harbors traces of past life. It is composed of a mass spectrometer, a laser spectrometer, a gas chromatograph, and two ovens to heat the samples. 

The rover’s robotic arm, shown here in a partially extended position, has a reach of about 2.3 meters. Made of titanium, it has two joints at the shoulder, one at the elbow, and two at the wrists, and it is fitted with a rock drill and a scoop to pick up samples. Curiosity will rely on the robotic arm for many research activities, including a maneuver never before performed on Mars: extracting samples from the interiors of Martian rocks and placing them into instruments inside the rover. 

Curiosity must be able to navigate uneven, rocky ground and climb steep slopes. To do so, it uses a basic six-wheel suspension system used by earlier Mars rovers, but with wheels a half-meter in diameter, twice the height of previous rovers. Here, a mobility testing model easily conquers boulders in NASA’s Mars Yard. 

Curiosity’s heat shield is the largest ever built for an interplanetary mission. With a diameter of 4.5 meters, it will protect Curiosity from the intense heat and friction generated by its descent through the Martian atmosphere to the surface. In this image, taken at Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver, technicians install electronics for an instrument that will collect temperature and pressure data during Curiosity’s descent. The heat shield will drop away from the rover during descent (see video). 

Curiosity was delivered to Kennedy Space Center in Florida on June 22 and is currently being prepared for launch. 

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