Mission to Mars: 8 Amazing Tech Tools Aboard NASA’s Curiosity Rover
Everyone’s talking about the $2.5 billion Curiosity rover‘s “terrifying” Hollywood-blockbuster-worthy landing: seven knuckle-in-teeth minutes in early August during which its aeroshell-armored bulk will plummet through Mars’ thin atmosphere at incredible speeds, snap apart to shed its back-shell, then fire rockets to slow its descent. It’ll be like Iron Man pulling out of a planetary dive, finally hovering dozens of feet above the designated Martian landing site — Gale Crater, near an 18,000-foot tall mound of debris — to gently lower the Mini-Cooper-sized rover itself from a nylon tether.
But what happens once the rover’s safely on the ground and NASA’s popping champagne corks? Assuming Curiosity — aka the Mars Science Laboratory, or MSL — survives the journey, what about the technology it’s hauled for over eight months through 354 million miles of vacuum at close to 48,000 miles per hour, and that it’ll deploy during its nearly two-year exploratory mission?
To understand the tech, you have to first understand Curiosity’s purpose.
“If you had to reduce the MSL’s scientific mission to one word, it would be habitability,” says MSL deputy project scientist Dr. Ashwin Vasavada. “For better than a decade, we’ve been doing what we call ‘following the water.’”
Water is one of the common factors for all known life on Earth, and therefore at the crux of any investigative journey to understand whether Mars could have contained — or ever harbored — life itself.
“So now we’re asking the next question, which is not just water, but what about the other ingredients that life would require,” says Vasavada, noting that Curiosity has a much broader mission than prior rovers: looking for life sources like carbon, water, sunlight and chemical energy, as well as hazards to life in the form of radiation.
“We do this broad survey of the environmental conditions at our landing site to see if we can call anything we find a habitable environment,” he says.