NASA's Curiosity Rover Is Exploring Mars—Like a Boss

By Andrew Tarantola on at

NASA may not be sending up manned shuttles anymore, but that doesn't mean we're done exploring the solar system—not by a long shot. On August 5th, the space agency's new flagship rover is expected to land on Mars as part of an unprecedented search for traces of life on the Red Planet.

You can ascertain the rover's importance simply by its size. This thing is huge compared to NASA's previous explorers, Spirit and Opportunity. Curiosity measures 10 feet long, 9 feet wide, and seven feet tall—taller than the average basketball player—weighing a hefty 900 kg. NASA's previous pair weighed just 185 kg apiece. Tack on the added reach of Curiosity's seven-foot long manipulation arm and the rover has roughly a two-story vertical reach. Not that there are many two-story-tall objects around the rover's planned landing site but a good ability to have, nonetheless.

To move beyond wherever it comes to rest after being lowered via sky crane from the Mars Lander Engine, Curiosity will rely on a set of six oversized wheels attached to a rocker-bogie suspension, much like its predecessors. Fun fact: the wheel treads will leave an impression in the Martian soil spelling "JPL" in Morse code. Why? Who cares, it's cool. The rover will propel itself along at up to a relatively-swift 300 FPH in automatic drive with an average speed of just 98 FPH when hunting for signs of life. In all, this £1.6 billion program is going to traverse just 12 miles during its two-year stay on Mars.

Powering the scientific behemoth is some surprisingly old tech. Curiosity relies on a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG)—the same nuclear engine that powered the Viking Spacecrafts from the 1970s—but hey, you stick with what works. These engines generate an electrical charge from the heat created by the power cell's decay of plutonium-238—125 watts of electrical power at the start of the mission decreasing to about 100 watts at the end of the plutonium's 14 year life span. That heat is also employed to keep the rover's fluids and mechanisms from freezing during the cold Martian nights. You could even say that NASA's built itself a warm-blooded robot.

Beyond keeping the rover itself alive, the RTG system will power the machine's extensive suite of sensors, X-Band transmitter, UHF radio, a pair of onboard computers—each with 256 KB of EEPROM, 256 MB of DRAM, and 2 GB of flash—and an Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) that helps the rover keep track of its bearings and balance with 3-axis sensor input. And gadgets. Hooo boy, does it have gadgets.

The Rover boasts a trio of primary cameras: the 720P multi-spectrum Matcam, the Mars Hand Lens Imager which is attached to the arm and capable of taking 1600x1200 microscopic shots, and the Mars Descent Imager, which will snap five frames/second for about two minutes as the rover makes its final approach to the surface. It also sports four hazard-avoidance cameras and a pair of stereoscopic navigation cameras.

Some would call Curiosity a rolling geology lab—and they'd be right. It's packed to the gills with scientific instruments: X-ray spectrometer, a laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS) system, rock-vaporizing lasers, organic sample analysis systems; and even radiation and neutrino detection systems. In fact, during the year-long trip to Mars, Curiosity is actually standing in for a human astronaut, recording the amount of solar radiation that penetrates the spacecraft. August 5th can't get here fast enough. [Wikipedia - JPL]