Video: Meet the new Mars rover

By Space.com contributor
updated 8/13/2011 6:02:38 PM ET 2011-08-13T22:02:38

NASA's next Mars rover, the car-sized Mars Science Laboratory, or Curiosity, is almost ready to fly to the Red Planet.

Beginning Sunday, technicians at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida will begin folding up the six-wheeled, nuclear-powered rover to pack it inside its heat shield.

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Targeted to launch atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket from Cape Canaveral on Nov. 25, the day after Thanksgiving, Curiosity was shown off to the media on Friday inside the clean room where it has been undergoing final tests and preparations for its journey to Mars. [Photos: NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity]

The rover, which at 10 feet long has been likened to the size of a Mini Cooper automobile, was in its fully deployed posture. The next time it's in the same configuration will be after it is deposited on the surface of Mars in August 2012.

"We're going to start buttoning up the hatches here," said Torsten Zorn, a robotics engineer with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

Tuck and stow
Over the next three or so days, Zorn and his fellow team members will work to fold down Curiosity's high-gain antenna, which will enable the rover to communicate directly with Earth. Technicians will also lock down the Remote Sensing Mast, which supports Curiosity's two stereo navigation cameras used for driving the rover and two science instruments to investigate the rover's surroundings.

They will also fold up Curiosity's instrument-tipped arm, capable of reaching out more than 7 feet to collect and study samples of the Martian surface.

Finally, technicians will tuck in Curiosity's six wheels, which are designed to roll the rover over obstacles up to 25 inches high and to travel distances up to 660 feet per day on the Martian terrain.

"[We] just fold them up, like a little insect," Zorn said.

Packing for flight
Once all the folding, stowing and tucking is complete, the Curiosity rover will be mated with its descent stage vehicle and then fitted inside a tightly packed cruise stage and aeroshell that will protect the rover during its nine-month trip to Mars. That whole package will be placed inside a protective shell called a fairing and eventually stacked atop the Atlas 5 rocket.

In the days leading up to liftoff, engineers will install Curiosity's nuclear power source: a radioisotope thermoelectric generator, which produces electricity from the heat of plutonium-238's radioactive decay. This long-lived power supply will provide Curiosity with an operating lifespan on Mars' surface of at least a full Mars year (687 Earth days, or 1.9 Earth years).

After arriving at Mars, the spacecraft will steer itself through Mars' atmosphere with a series of S-curve maneuvers similar to those used by astronauts piloting NASA's now-retired space shuttles. During the three minutes before touchdown, the spacecraft will slow its plunge to the ground with a parachute, then use retro rockets mounted around the rim of an upper stage to further slow its approach.

In the final seconds before Curiosity's landing, the upper stage will act as a sky crane, lowering the upright rover on a tether to the surface. [Video: Curiosity to Make Unusual Landing on Mars]

Bigger and better
Curiosity is about twice as long and five times as heavy as NASA's twin Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, which launched in 2003 and are still on the Martian surface.

Curiosity inherited many design elements from its earlier, smaller cousins — including six-wheel drive, a "rocker-bogie" suspension system and cameras mounted on a mast to help the mission's team on Earth select exploration targets and driving routes. However,  unlike Spirit and Opportunity, Curiosity has equipment to gather samples of rocks and soil, process them and distribute them to onboard test chambers that are inside analytical instruments.

Those instruments include some of the most advanced scientific gear ever used on Mars' surface and a payload more than 10 times as massive as those of the earlier Mars rovers. Using these tools, Curiosity will investigate whether conditions on Mars may be favorable for microbial life today and for preserving clues in the rocks about possible past life.

Robert Pearlman is a SPACE.com contributor and editor of collectSPACE.com. You can follow him @ robertpearlman or on Facebook. Follow Space.com on Twitter @ Spacedotcomand on Facebook.

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Photos: The greatest hits from Mars

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  1. The face of Mars

    The Hubble Space Telescope focuses on the full disk of Mars, with a head-on view of a dark feature known as Syrtis Major. Hubble astronomers could make out features as small as 12 miles wide. (AURA / STSCI / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Red, white and blue planet

    Two decades before Pathfinder, the Viking 1 lander sent back America's first pictures from the Martian surface. This 1976 picture shows off the lander's U.S. flag and a Bicentennial logo as well as the planet's landscape. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Grand canyon

    This is a composite of Viking orbiter images that shows the Valles Marineris canyon system. The entire system measures more than 1,875 miles long and has an average depth of 5 miles. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Red rover

    A mosaic of eight pictures shows the Pathfinder probe's Sojourner rover just after it rolled off its ramp. At lower right you can see one of the airbags that cushioned Pathfinder's landing on July 4, 1997. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Twin Peaks at their peak

    The Pathfinder probe focuses on Twin Peaks, two hills of modest height on the Martian horizon. Each peak rises about 100 feet above the surrounding rock-littered terrain. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Blue horizon

    A Martian sunset reverses the colors you'd expect on Earth: Most of the sky is colored by reddish dust hanging in the atmosphere, but the scattering of light creates a blue halo around the sun itself. (NASA / JPL) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Two-faced Mars

    The image at left, captured by a Viking orbiter in the 1970s, sparked speculation that Martians had constructed a facelike monument peering into space. But the sharper image at right, sent back in 1998 by Mars Global Surveyor, spoiled the effect. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Put on a happy face

    The "Happy Face Crater" - officially named Galle Crater - puts a humorous spin on the "Face on Mars" controversy. This image was provided by the Mars Global Surveyor orbiter. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A monster of a mountain

    Mars' highest mountain, an inactive volcano dubbed Olympus Mons, rises as high as three Everests and covers roughly the same area as the state of Arizona. Mars Global Surveyor took this wide-angle view. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Pockmarked moon

    Mars Global Surveyor snapped this picture of Phobos, the larger of Mars' two potato-shaped moons. Phobos' average width is just 14 miles. The image highlights Phobos' 6-mile-wide Stickney Crater. () Back to slideshow navigation
  11. From Mars with love

    This valentine from Mars, as seen by Mars Global Surveyor, is actually a pit formed by a collapse within a straight-walled trough known in geological terms as a graben. The pit spans 1.4 miles at its widest point. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Sandy swirls

    An image taken by Mars Global Surveyor shows a section of the northern sand dunes on Mars' surface. The dunes, composed of dark sand grains, encircle the north polar cap. (JPL / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Curls of clouds

    Global Surveyor focuses on a storm system over Mars' north polar region. The north polar ice cap is the white feature at the top center of the frame. Clouds that appear white consist mainly of water ice. Clouds that appear orange or brown contain dust. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Swiss cheese

    Global Surveyor captured images of a frost pattern at Mars' south polar ice cap that looks like Swiss cheese. The south polar cap is the only region on the Red Planet to contain such formations. (NASA / JPL / Malin Space Science) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Purple Planet

    A false-color image from the Opportunity rover, released Feb. 9, 2004, accentuates the differences between a green-looking slab of Martian bedrock and orange-looking spheres of rock. Scientists likened the "spherules" to blueberries embedded within and scattered around muffins of bedrock. The spherules are thought to have been created by the percolation of mineral-laden water through the bedrock layers. (NASA / JPL / Cornell University) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Dunes of Mars

    A false-color view from NASA's Opportunity rover, released Aug. 6, 2004, shows the dune field at the bottom of Endurance Crater. The bluish tint indicates the presence of hematite-containing spherules ("blueberries") that accumulate on the flat surfaces of the crater floor. (NASA / JPL / Cornell University) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Alien junkyard

    The Opportunity rover looks at its own heat shield, which was jettisoned during the spacecraft's descent back in January 2004, on Dec. 22, 2004. The main structure from the heat shield is at left, with additional debris and the scar left by the shield's impact to the right. The shadow of the rover's observation mast is visible in the foreground. (NASA / JPL) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Devil on Mars

    This image shows a mini-whirlwind, also known as a dust devil, scooting across the plains inside Gusev Crater on Mars, as seen from the Spirit rover's hillside vantage point on April 18, 2005. (NASA / JPL) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Rub al Khali

    The tracks of NASA's Opportunity rover are visible in a panoramic picture of a desolate, sandy stretch of Martian terrain in Meridiani Planum, photographed in May 2005 and released by NASA on July 28. "Rub al Khali" (Arabic for "Empty Quarter") was chosen as the title of this panorama because that is the name of a similarly barren, desolate part of the Saudi Arabian desert on Earth. (NASA / JPL / Cornell University) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Double moons

    Taking advantage of extra solar energy collected during the day, NASA's Spirit rover spent a night stargazing, photographing the two moons of Mars as they crossed the night sky. The large bright moon is Phobos; the smaller one to its left is Deimos. (NASA / JPL / Cornell / Texas A&M) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Mars in the round

    A 360-degree panorama shows a stretched-out view of NASA's Spirit rover and its surroundings on the summit of Husband Hill, within Mars' Gusev Crater. The imagery for the panorama was acquired in August, and the picture was released on Dec. 5. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Fossil delta

    Scientifically, perhaps the most important result from use of the Mars Orbiter Camera on NASA's Mars Global Surveyor has been the discovery in November 2003 of a fossil delta located in a crater northeast of Holden Crater. (NASA / JPL / MSSS) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Underneath the ice

    This view taken in January 2005 shows sharp detail of a scarp at the head of Chasma Boreale, a large trough cut by erosion into the Martian north polar cap and the layered material beneath the ice cap. (NASA / JPL / MSSS) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Celestial celebration

    Controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., cheer on Friday after hearing that Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter successfully made it into orbit around the Red Planet. (Phil McCarten / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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    Above: Slideshow (24) The greatest hits from Mars
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    Slideshow (12) Month in Space: January 2014

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