Unlike the Orion project (which will launch three years ahead of schedule), the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission has been delayed two years. Now, after 8 years of planning, its centerpiece rover will finally launch from Cape Canaveral on Saturday. The Mars rover Curiosity is being sent on a projected two year mission to assess whether Mars ever did or could support microbial life. It will touch down in August at the Gale Crater after being lowered to the surface via a rocket-powered sky crane. Yes, you read that right. The new Mars rover will be lowered to the Martian landscape via a rocket-powered sky crane to lay the groundwork for future searches for (microbial) life on Mars.
Curiosity is a behemoth compared to Spirit and Opportunity, the two rovers that came before it. Not only does it weigh five times more than its older brothers, it carries twice as many scientific instruments. In addition to its fancy scientific gadgets, Curiosity has a good old-fashioned drill with which to peek at the insides of Martian rocks. Instead of traditional solar cells, the new rover has radioisotope thermoelectric generators. These spiffy generators use radioactive decay of plutonium to generate electricity, which makes Curiosity far better suited to Martian winters than previous rovers. The combined force of all this makes for what MSL scientist Ashwin Vasavada calls “a Mars scientist’s dream machine”: “This rover is not only the most technically capable rover ever sent to another plaanet, but it’s actually the most capable scientific explorer we’ve ever sent out.”
The mission is set to last two years, but it’s not unreasonable to think that Curiosity will continue to truck about the Martian landscape for much longer than that. Spirit and Opportunity were only supposed to hang around for three months, but Spirit only “died” this year and Opportunity is still there sending back data. As long as that crazy sounding sky crane landing succeeds, Curiosity should be around for a long time to supply us with important data and beautiful images from the Red Planet.