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Mars Rover “Curiosity” Prepares for Launch

Technicians at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena are putting the finishing touches on Curiosity, the largest and most sophisticated Mars rover ever built.

Curiosity is scheduled for launch in November and, nine months later will begin its entry into the Martian atmosphere for the most widely anticipated phase of the mission, the landing.

The rover weighs about as much as a small car, so the kind of airbag-assisted landing used for its predecessors, Opportunity and Spirit, will not work for Curiosity. Instead JPL has come up with a landing system that combines old and new technologies, according to Deputy Project Scientist, Ashwin Vasavada

“We’re kind of going back to the past, where we fly spacecraft down, using rockets. But the little twist we have this time is that there’s a rocket sled that will carry the rover down and set the rover down on the surface on its wheels after deploying it on a tether in the few hundred feet above the surface.”

JPL has conducted exhaustive tests on the system. They’re confident it will work but can only hope that the rover survives the experience intact.

“The first thing we do after we land, since landing one of the most traumatic experiences that this rover will go through, is just to ask the rover to tell us that it’s all okay. So we spend the first few days on Mars, checking all the systems out, going through every subsystem, one by one, and then looking at all the instruments, make sure they survived launch and landing. And then we’ll start slowly doing some science.”

That science will be sustained by a nuclear power source designed to keep the Rover functioning for about two years and an onboard laboratory equipped to collect and analyze Martian rocks and soil samples, sending the data back to Earth. Scientists hope that Curiosity will be able to find traces of carbon, a chemical element that supports all life on Earth and may once have done the same for life on Mars.

Bottom line: While the US shuttle program may be winding down, the drive to explore our solar system is as strong as ever. Mars is still the focus for many scientists and excitement is growing about November’s scheduled launch of the latest Mars rover, Curiosity, now in its final stages of testing at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.