The saga of NASA's next-generation Mars rover began on November 26 with the launch of the Mars Science Laboratory
, the all-encompassing name of the mission that centers on a six-wheeled, nuclear-powered vehicle called Curiosity. Much, much, much remains to come. The Curiosity rover won't arrive on the Red Planet until August, but the project is already under way. Even as it's packed in a spacecraft (see artist's rendering above) for the 350-million-mile interplanetary journey, Curiosity is already taking measurements
that NASA says will help lay the groundwork for human missions to Mars that lie much further in the future.
An instrument aboard the rover called the Radiation Assessment Detector is monitoring high-energy atomic and subatomic particles from the sun and beyond. "RAD is serving as a proxy for an astronaut inside a spacecraft on the way to Mars," Don Hassler, RAD's principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., said in a statement. "The instrument is deep inside the spacecraft, the way an astronaut would be. Understanding the effects of the spacecraft on the radiation field will be valuable in designing craft for astronauts to travel to Mars."