A peek at what NASA's new rover packed for Mars

Aug 04, 2012 by ALICIA CHANG

If you were packing for Mars, what would you bring?

NASA's latest tourist, the roving robot named Curiosity, will lug around a suite of gadgets to snap pictures, sniff, taste and even drill. It will study the environment to figure out whether the giant crater where it lands ever possessed a for .

The six-wheel, nuclear-powered rover is far more tech-savvy than anything that has landed before on the red planet. Here's a glimpse of some of the cool things Curiosity can do:

It carries a laser that can zap a hole in rocks up to about 25 feet (7.6 meters) away and identify the inside. This point-and-shoot strategy saves time because if a rock looks boring, Curiosity can roll on.

Its 7-foot (2.1-meter)-long has a power drill at the end that can bore into rocks and soil. Like a scientist in a laboratory, it can transfer the ground-up powder to its onboard workbench to tease out minerals and sniff for organics, considered the chemical building blocks of life.

What's the point of an extraterrestrial trip if you can't sight-see? Curiosity promises to be a shutterbug, toting around a set of 2-megapixel color cameras that can beam panoramas back to Earth. With YouTube fans in mind, it also packed a video camera that will record the last few minutes of its hairy descent to Mars.

Like before it, Curiosity carries a to take daily temperature and pressure readings and record seasonal changes.

Even before landing, Curiosity has been doing experiments, tracking radiation during the 8 1/2-month cruise to Mars. That should help NASA gauge to future distance-traveling astronauts.

As sophisticated as Curiosity is, it won't be able to tell us whether existed on Mars once upon a time or if it's there now. The one-ton rover isn't equipped for that and its cameras are not powerful enough to see fossil relics — if they exist.

Smarts aside, engineers also outfitted Curiosity with a sense of style. It boasts 20-inch aluminum wheels — twice the size of the wheels on twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity that landed in 2004 — with spokes made of titanium and cleats for traction.

Curiosity may be tricked out, but expect some slow going. Its top speed one-tenth of a mile per hour.

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Jeweller
1.3 / 5 (4) Aug 04, 2012
The only thing I don't like about the Curiosity is the laser.
Surely sufficient analisis could have been done without shooting rocks with a laser.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (4) Aug 04, 2012
The laser is probably the best part. Anything that comes in contact with the rover is a risk. Stuff can get dirty, stuff can get stuck, stuff can scratch, break off, etc.
But the laser just shoots and the analysis is performed without touching anything.
It also means the rover doesn't have to move as much (each movement is another chance to get stuck or for something to break down)
admorford
1 / 5 (2) Aug 05, 2012
I doubt the laser would leave a mark. Seems like the approach with a laser would be to excite the target surface just enough for it to emit some wavelengths that should characterize the elements or molecules. I think one of the past rovers had an internal analysis "oven" with only 8 slots - was very limiting and subject to several mechanical points of failure. It would be a big leap if the rovers could survive the Martian winter; I believe once the rover gets into the cold weather combined with short days the batteries fail.
admorford
not rated yet Aug 05, 2012
Opps, this rover CAN survive a martian winter - just read that Curiosity has no solar panels. A plutonium-powered "space battery" provides the electric and heat.
Mayday
1 / 5 (2) Aug 05, 2012
NASA needs to better appreciate the value and power of images and video in our culture. A 2mp camera? I hope that's a typo. It should be recording in 3d in the area of 40mp with a massively powerful telephoto and publishing daily panos for all of us to dive into. #PRfail
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Aug 05, 2012
Megapixels is not a useful measure (not even in cameras you buy at the store). Color depth and ability to focus on tiny deatils are much more important for doing science.

#PRfail

It's there to do science not to sell soft drinks.
Mayday
1.5 / 5 (2) Aug 05, 2012
Anti, I do tons of photography, both professionally and personally, and megapixels are very a important measure, especially when enlargement, cropping, fine focus, and fine details are important. For instagram and fb, your 2mp cellphone cam will more than suffice, but to record serious digital information without the distortions of digital sharpening programs, high megapixels are essential. It is the basic measure of data volume recorded.
And I'd suggest that the prevalence of your attitude about science PR is exactly what has brought NASA to the pickle it is in today.
Mayday
1 / 5 (2) Aug 05, 2012
Demanding professional photographers prefer cameras with large sensor, high megapixels and no antialiasing filter, in order to obtain the purest, high-fidelity data capture. It seems that demanding scientists might be interested in the same thing, no?
Antialias, perhaps you should consider a name change, especially if you're going to opine on image capture. :-)
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (4) Aug 05, 2012
Anti, I do tons of photography, both professionally and personally, and megapixels are very a important measure, especially when enlargement, cropping, fine focus, and fine details are important.

Not in this case. Cropping is entirely unimportant. Enlargement is also something that you don't want to do, because any kind of pixel manipulation reduces the information content.
The MASTCAM can get down to details of 0.15mm. That's pretty good.
The distortion is not due to lack of megapixels. For that you need to consider the entire package not just the CCD chip. And the camera they have on there is top notch.

This is not about what "demanding professional photographers" want. They want pretty pictures. This is NOT about pretty pictures. This is about getting maximum information per dollar spent (i.e. per kg transferred to Mars). Those guys know what they are doing. They have thought about this harder, longer and with way more brain cells than you or I have. Give them some credit.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (2) Aug 05, 2012
The visual light camera(s) are also (scientifically) the least important parts on this mission. Camera pictures don't tell you much (at least not much you couldn't tell from orbit already).

It is the basic measure of data volume recorded. And I'd suggest that the prevalence of your attitude about science PR is exactly what has brought NASA to the pickle it is in today.

So you think we should be spending billions of dollars to get useless gadgets to places in the solar system?
At some point people have to be professionals and damn the PR. For that kind of money humanity should get more than a dog-and-pony show.

Antialias, perhaps you should consider a name change, especially if you're going to opine on image capture

The name is not a reference to antialiasing.