After years of planning, the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel is easy to glimpse. The next-generation Curiosity rover is on track to land on Mars next year. For the moment, the craft is still being put through its paces at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. By fall, the Curiosity will be shipped to Kennedy Space Center, Fla., where a launch is slated between Nov. 25 and Dec. 18. The target area remains undecided but NASA scientists hope the Curiosity will be able to shed light on whether Mars has offered environmental conditions favorable for microbial life or whether Martian life has ever existed.
In this image, tests inside the 25-foot-diameter chamber put the rover through various sequences in environmental conditions resembling Martian surface conditions. Air was pumped out to near-vacuum pressure and temperatures fell to minus 130 degrees.
Assuming all goes according to plan, the rover will execute a landing on Mars in August 2012.
This is basically how the Curiosity will look once it's out and about on the surface of Mars.
No 3-D video this time around as plans for a zoom-lens cameras, which would have provided additional capabilities for Curiosity, were pulled recently. Too bad as it put the kibosh on a possible association with film director James Cameron, who was going to supply the technology. Reports suggested that there were concerns about Cameron's project coming in over budget and behind schedule.
"The possibility for a zoom-camera upgrade was very much worth pursuing, but time became too short for the levels of testing that would be needed for them to confidently replace the existing cameras," said Mars Science Laboratory Project Scientist John Grotzinger. Instead, the Curiosity will take pictures with two fixed-focal-length cameras: a telephoto for one eye and wider angle for the other.
Weather sensors will allow Curiosity to monitor wind speed, wind direction and air temperature.
Was the Red Planet ever inhabited? To help answer that question, Curiosity will carry onboard a chemical element reader that will measure the chemical ingredients in Martian rocks and soil it comes across. Although previous Mars rovers carried a similar instrument, improvements have been made with each succeeding generation. The plan is to compare the Curiosity's findings with those from previous rovers so that NASA scientists can learn about changes to the Martian crust over the centuries.