Curiosity Rover
The Nuclear Mars Rover
With a Rock-Blasting Laser

Its name: Curiosity Rover. Its missions:

  1. explore Mars,
  2. find proofs of Life on Mars (past or present),
  3. determine the geological history of the Red Planet,
  4. look for traces of past life-friendly conditions,
  5. determine the levels of different radiations on the surface.

Before you say that James Bond can do better, wait until you see the gadgets.

  • a nuclear battery,
  • a rock blasting laser,
  • more than 10 science instruments.

Now that you see that this new Mars Rover is the real deal, let's go into more details. First, let's see what's new. Second, what will it do? And finally how it will land on Mars.

The Curiosity Rover will look for traces of life

From NASA

1) Curiosity Rover Vs Mars Exploration Rovers

The Mars Exploration Rovers are the most succesful mission to Mars. They arrived on Mars at the beginning of 2004, and one of them is still running today (Spirit has been officially lost now). So why does NASA send a new Mars Rover if the previous one is still working?

First, the Curiosity Rover will bring some new equipment. With over 10 experimental tools, it deserves his name of Mars Science Laboratory (Curiosity is actually his nickname). While the duo Spirit/Opportunity was focusing on geology and evidence of water (past and present), the new rover will look for the "habitability" of the Red Planet. It will also look for direct proofs of life on Mars by testing the presence of carbon compounds linked to life activity on Earth.

Second, it is bigger, more powerful, and can work a lot harder. I think the most distinctive feature is the battery system. The new Mars Rover will get rid of the big solar panels and replace them by a nuclear battery. There are some huge advantages to that system:

  • It can work day and night
  • it can work in winter
  • it can heat the parts continuously
  • it is smaller than the cumbersome solar panels

How much difference it makes? The Opportunity Rover has travelled 25km in 7 years of service. The Curiosity rover could travel up to 20km in its first two years (less if it finds good scientific sites to study). It's clearly thanks to the smaller and more powerful battery that the Mars Science Laboratory can carry so many tools.

Find out how the Curiosity Rover nuclear battery work on this dedicated page.

The Curiosity rover is a lot different from its predecessors

A comparison of Mars Exploration Robots
From NASA

2) What will it do on Mars?

As I said in the introduction, the mission of the Curiosity Rover is ambitious and complete: solve the Mysteries of Mars would sum it up nicely. While the previous missions had only 3 to 5 experiments, often limited to an immobile Mars Lander, this one will bring the full artillery and wander around a vast surface of the planet.

These experiments use the best of high-tech technologies. I especially like the rock-blasting laser! It won't actually explode big chunks of rock to carve its way through, but it can still do some pretty cool stuff. The laser can heat up a small portion of rock while a camera analyze the lights emitted by the target. This way, the robot can analyze the composition of rocks within a 9 meter range. Star Wars blasters are not so far away...

You can click here to learn more about the purpose of Mars Rovers.

The Curiosity rover is in the starting blocks

From NASA

What is a typical day for the Curiosity Rover?

Well, it depends on the day. Curiosity will move for about 1 day out of 2. The other day is used by scientists to collect the data and plan the next day's objectives.

Here are some of the actions the Rover can make in one day:

  • Rovering day: the Mars Rover will move for a whole day in direction of the next interesting scientific site.
  • Approach day: the Rover is at an experiment site. It will now approach its next target (usually a rock and set himself in position to start the experiments.
  • Experiment day: the Rover will conduct experiments with its tools and send the data back to Earth.

I found the main NASA website for the Mars Science Laboratory is a little shallow (pages are too short, with only a few numberson each). On the other hand, the MSL Science Corner (opens in a new tab) does a great job at describing all the tools and planning about the rover. The information is older, but a lot more dense.

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3) How will the Rover land on Mars?

The Sky Crane
From NASA
The Sky Crane in action

First: why doesn't it land the same way as the previous rovers? They used huge airbags that would absorb the shock at landing. A little crude, but it worked. What would happen if the Curiosity Rover did the same? The airbags would fail and explode under the weight of the rover (4 times heavier than the Mars Exploration Rovers).

What's the solution? It's called the Sky Crane. The principle is the same as the cranes used for constructions. The little difference is that the Sky Crane is a flying robot with 4 thrusters for stabilization. The flying robot is first slowed down by the thin atmosphere of Mars, then by a parachute and finally controls its way near the ground to softly deliver the 900kg rover to the surface. Finally, the cables linking the rover to the Sky Crane will disengage and the flying robot will move to a safe distance to crash. It's unique, it's elegant, it's NASA.


For more on Mars Exploration Robots:

Basic features of all Mars Rovers.
Why are we sending Rovers to Mars?
The Curiosity Rover Nuclear Battery explained



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