Thu, August 23, 2012
Technology > U.S. Mars Rover Curiosity Lands

Backgrounder: Basic information about NASA's Mars rover Curiosity

2012-08-06 01:33:42 GMT2012-08-06 09:33:42(Beijing Time)  Xinhua English

WASHINGTON, Aug. 5 (Xinhua) -- NASA's Mars rover Curiosity is set to touch down in the Gale Crater area of Mars early Monday. The mission will study whether the Red Planet has evidence of past and present habitable environments. The following is basic information about the most sophisticated mobile science lab ever sent to another world.

HOW DID CURIOSITY GET ITS NAME?

Curiosity is a lander of the Mars Science Laboratory mission. In 2008, NASA held a naming contest open to students and selected Curiosity, proposed by a sixth-grader from Kansas.

HOW BIG IS IT?

The Mini Cooper-sized rover is much bigger than its rover predecessors, Spirit, Opportunity and Sojourner. Curiosity is twice as long (about 2.8 meters, or 9 feet) and five times as heavy as Spirit and Opportunity, which landed in 2004. Sojourner, about the size of a microwave oven, landed in 1997 as part of the Mars Pathfinder mission.

LANDING -- WHERE AND HOW?

Curiosity will land near the foot of a mountain near the middle of Gale Crater, which is the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. 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 of a very large, heavy rover on Mars (instead of the airbag landing systems of previous Mars rovers). Other innovations enable a landing within a smaller target area than previous Mars missions.

HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE FOR THE ROVER TO GET TO MARS SURFACE AFTER IT REACHES THE OUTER ATMOSPHERE?

About seven minutes. Dubbed the "seven minutes of terror" by NASA, the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft carrying Curiosity will employ a parachute, landing rockets, a hovering sky crane, and other complicated mechanisms to help lower the rover to the surface of Mars.

TOOLKIT

Curiosity will use 10 science instruments to examine rocks, soil and atmosphere. A laser will vaporize patches of rock from a distance, and another instrument will search for organic compounds. 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.

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.

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.

MISSION COST

Two and half billion U.S. dollars. That's one billion over its original budget. Curiosity had been supposed to launch in 2009 and land in 2010, but development took longer than expected. The delay gave engineers more time to debug problems and test the spacecraft, but also put the project over budget.

WHEN WILL WE SEND ASTRONAUTS TO MARS?

U.S. President Barack Obama has set a goal for astronauts to orbit Mars by the mid-2030s to be followed by a landing. Before that can happen, the plan is to send astronauts to an asteroid first.

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