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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Meet NASA’s next Mars rover: Curiosity. It has a plutonium-powered laser

By Sebastian Anthony

Mars Exploration Rover Curiosity

After a series of moderately successful Mars Exploration Rovers (MER), NASA is about to take its game to the next level. Say hello to Curiosity, which is 10 feet (3m) long and weighs almost a ton, four times more than Spirit and Opportunity. It is expected to launch in November or December, and arrive on Mars about eight months later.

Not only is Curiosity huge, but it’s also equipped with a robot arm, a laser that can vaporize rocks at seven meters, and a percussive drill for boring into Mars’ surface. The machine itself is powered by the heat given off by 4.8kg plutonium dioxide, meaning it won’t rely on solar power, which has caused issues with older space craft. It’s not just the rover itself that’s cool cool, though: because it’s so heavy, Curiosity can’t use the highly scientific approach of “airbagging” to soften its landing — instead, it will descend through the Mars atmosphere using a retrorocket jet pack.

It is not yet known where Curiosity will land on Mars — the final choice will likely be made in the next few days — but there are two front-runners: Gale Crater, a 150-kilometer depression with a 5-kilometer-high mound of ancient sediment that might contain telltale signs of organic life, and Eberswalde Crater, which is thought to contain a river delta and lakebed deposits. Both landing sites are theorized to have once contained water, and Curiosity will be tasked with analyzing whether one of these regions — and Mars itself — was once habitable. The total cost of the Curiosity mission, incidentally, will be at least $2.3 billion — well beyond the $820 million spent on Spirit and Opportunity.

At this point, we strongly suggest that you look at the full-size images of Curiosity, both on NASA’s website and Wired.

If you want to read more about the mission itself, check out the Mars Science Laboratory website or Nature’s write-up.