Building on the successes of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, NASA later this year will launch its most extensive mission to Mars to date. It plans to send up a new rover packed with an array of 10 instruments for examining rocks, soil, and the atmosphere, including a powerful laser that will vaporize rocks from a distance and an instrument that analyzes samples for organic compounds.
At 2.8 meters long, the nuclear-powered, Mini Cooper-sized rover called Curiosity is twice as long and four times as heavy as its Spirit and Opportunity predecessors, NASA says.
Inside a 25-foot-diameter space simulation chamber at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., during one of the final phases of testing of the Mars Science Laboratory rover last month, Curiosity was put through operational sequences in simulated Martian conditions.
Sealing in a near-vacuum environment, the chamber is filled with liquid nitrogen and cooled to minus 202 degrees Fahrenheit, and giant light panels simulate Mars' sunshine.
Seen here on March 8, with all of its primary flight hardware and instruments, technicians use a wand to map the solar simulation intensities at different locations inside the chamber prior to the start of tests, NASA says.