It is the biggest and best equipped robot ever sent to explore another planet. Curiosity will reach Mars next summer – if all goes to plan, abseiling down from a hovering “sky crane” to set off across the surface equipped with a drill, laser probe and other equipment to analyse Martian soil and rocks for evidence that Earth’s neighbour might once have been supported life.
The one-tonne Curiosity is three metres long, 2.7 metres wide and 2.1 metres tall at its mast. It is nuclear-powered and holds 10 science instruments. “It’s an enormous mission. It’s equivalent of three missions, frankly, and quite an undertaking,” said programme director Doug McCuistion. “Science fiction is now science fact. We’re flying to Mars. We’ll get it on the ground and see what we find.”
The primary goal of the £1.6bn ($2.5bn) mission is to see whether cold, dry, barren Mars might have been or is still hospitable for microbial life. No way of detecting life is on board; rather, the instruments will hunt for organic compounds.
Curiosity’s 2.1 metre arm has a jackhammer on the end to drill into the Martian rock and its mast carries high-definition and laser cameras.
The rover has a weather station that will provide temperature, wind and humidity readings; a computer app with daily weather updates is planned.
The world has launched more than three dozen missions to Mars and fewer than half have succeeded. In early November a Russian spacecraft ended up stuck in orbit around Earth, rather than en route to the Martian moon Phobos.
Curiosity’s landing in August 2012 will be the first of its kind. It will be lowered on to the surface from a platform hovering on rockets, similar to the sky-crane helicopters used to lower heavy equipment into remote areas on Earth.
Curiosity is too heavy to use air bags to land like its much smaller predecessors, Spirit and Opportunity, did in 2004. The new way also provides for a more accurate landing, as well as simulating what astronauts might have to do if they ever reach Mars.
Curiosity will spend a minimum of two years and cover at least 12 miles while roaming around Gale Crater, chosen from among more than 50 potential landing sites because it is rich in minerals. Its nuclear generator means it could last for months or years longer than scheduled.