Five things about NASA's Mars Curiosity rover

September 16, 2010
An artist's concept illustrates what the Mars rover Curiosity looks like on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

( -- Mars Science Laboratory, aka Curiosity, is part of NASA's Mars Exploration Program, a long-term program of robotic exploration of the Red Planet. The mission is scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla., in late 2011, and arrive at an intriguing region of Mars in August 2012.

The goal of Curiosity, a rolling laboratory, is to assess whether ever had an environment capable of supporting and conditions favorable for preserving clues about life, if it existed. This will help us better understand whether life could have existed on the and, if so, where we might look for it in the future.

1. How Big Is It?: The Mini Cooper-sized rover is much bigger than its rover predecessors, Spirit, Opportunity and Pathfinder. Curiosity is twice as long (about 2.8 meters, or 9 feet) and four times as heavy as Spirit and Opportunity, which landed in 2004. Pathfinder, about the size of a microwave oven, landed in 1997.

2. Landing--Where and How: In November 2008, possible sites were narrowed to four finalists, all linked to ancient wet conditions. NASA will select a site believed to be among the most likely places to hold a geological record of a favorable environment for life. The site must also meet safe-landing criteria. The landing system is similar to a sky crane heavy-lift helicopter. After a parachute slows the rover's descent toward Mars, a rocket-powered backpack will lower the rover on a tether during the final moments before landing. This method allows landing a very large, heavy rover on Mars (instead of the airbag landing systems of previous ). Other innovations enable a landing within a smaller target area than previous Mars missions.

3. Toolkit: Curiosity will use 10 science instruments to examine rocks, soil and the atmosphere. A laser will vaporize patches of rock from a distance, and another instrument will search for . Other instruments include mast-mounted cameras to study targets from a distance, arm-mounted instruments to study targets they touch, and deck-mounted analytical instruments to determine the composition of rock and soil samples acquired with a powdering drill and a scoop.

Engineers working in a clean room at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, installed six new wheels on the Curiosity rover, and rotated all six wheels at once on July 9, 2010. Iredit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

4. Big Wheels: Each of Curiosity's six wheels has an independent drive motor. The two front and two rear wheels also have individual steering motors. This steering allows the rover to make 360-degree turns in-place on the Mars surface. The wheels' diameter is double the wheel diameter on Spirit and Opportunity, which will help Curiosity roll over obstacles up to 75 centimeters (30 inches) high.

5. Rover Power: A nuclear battery will enable Curiosity to operate year-round and farther from the equator than would be possible with only solar power.

Explore further: Helicopter Helps Test Radar for 2012 Mars Landing

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not rated yet Sep 17, 2010
What happens to the radioactive material if the rover crashes into mars? ... sure they have become better at landing on mars, but thier trackrecord isnt that good yet to risk it. But seems a bit like a bit of a blunder, as they go to very great lengths not to contaminate mars with bacteria etc...
2.3 / 5 (3) Sep 17, 2010
What happens to the radioactive material if the rover crashes into mars? ... sure they have become better at landing on mars, but thier trackrecord isnt that good yet to risk it. But seems a bit like a bit of a blunder, as they go to very great lengths not to contaminate mars with bacteria etc...

The radioactive material may escape into the environment of course. This doesn't contaminate Mars with bacteria. Are you worried about the effects of the radioactive material on life there? The little green men will develop cancer!
2 / 5 (4) Sep 17, 2010
Life on Mars as we know it will never be the same. lol.

Look up Radioisotope thermoelectric generator on wiki. These things are used all over the place, both on Earth and in space. Russia uses them to power remote lighthouses and navigational beacons. There are thousands of them around. The one on board Apolo 13 now lies at the bottom of the pacific. There are a total of 6 known launch failures of spacecraft with RTG power sources, and five launch failures of Russian spacecraft carying actual nuclear reactors. They are designed to withstand failure, but a couple of them burned up and released radioactive material anyway, with nearly undectable results in terms of contamination. I would be more fearful of the battery surviving a launch failure and actually hitting someone on the head than I would be of radiation poisoning.
not rated yet Sep 17, 2010
A 2002 design-concept paper for a RTG powered Mars rover discusses operating specs and shielding requirements (needed since the RTG is incorporated into the chassis instead of on a boom):

Of more dire interest here is the fact that NASA is running out of Pu-238 fuel fast. The Mars rover and a planned Europa Orbiter may be the last NASA RTG-powered missions for some time:


Folks in Congress need to get their act together...soon.

1 / 5 (1) Sep 20, 2010
Well, there are alternative elements that CAN be used to fuel a nuclear decay power cell. It's really just a matter of the trade-offs between different types. Some are more dangerous, some more expensive, some less effective (meaning heavier), etc. You're right about the best one being in short supply though. It's kinda like Goldilocks and the three nuclear fuels; This one's too hot, this one's too cold, and this one's just right. :) Who would have guessed that the bears would be environmentalists?
not rated yet Sep 20, 2010
"there are alternative elements that CAN be used to fuel a nuclear decay power cell."

True. The RTG wiki entry says about 30 isotopes are suitable for this use: http://en.wikiped...isotopes

But then one could ask, what role does NASA see for future use of RTGs in space? NASA has no practical experience with RTGs that utilize anything other than Pu-238. R & D on alternative fuels and vessels should have begun years ago. As it stands, NASA has not pursued either additional sources of Pu-238 or any possible alternative isotopes for RTGs. One has to wonder whether NASA sees ANY use of RTGs over the next 20+ years.

BTW, it seems that Pu-238 and Am-241 seem to be the most suitable RTG isotopes based on half-life and shielding requirements.

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