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Mars Rover Curiosity

Updated on September 21, 2012

Curiosity is the name of the Mars rover that landed on Mars at 10:32 p.m. PDT (Pacific Daylight Time) on August 5, 2012.

With the aid of a parachute, it landed at the Gale Crater on Mars within 2.4 km (1.5 miles) from its touchdown target, which is a near-perfect landing considering that it traveled 563,000,000 km (350,000,000 miles) to get there.

That is quite a distance. In fact, it took eight and a half months of traveling through space to get to Mars. If NASA were to send an "emergency stop" signal to the rover on Mars, that signal will take 14 minutes to get there.

Animation of Curiosity Rover Journey

Curiosity Rover Landing

As you saw in the artist's concept animation of Curiosity's journey, the landing is one of the more complicated sequence.

  • 10 minutes before hitting the Mars atmosphere, the cruise stage of the rocket separates away
  • The rover is protected inside the aeroshell with the heat shield protecting it during entry. The heat shield gets as hot as 3800 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • The parachute deploys to slow it down further
  • With its job done, the heat shield drops away.
  • Then the backshell and the parachute detaches.
  • Eight retro-rockets fire for a powered decent
  • The rover is then lowered via an umbilical cord from the descent stage
  • The six wheels of the rover touches down on the Martian soil
  • The descent stage cuts the cord and flies away, leaving the rover on Mars.

Powered by Plutonium

Curiosity is powered by plutonium which will allow it to operate for one full Martian year, which is 687 Earth days.

Its power comes from a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG), which produces electricity from the natural decay of plutonium-238.

There are two identical computers on the Curiosity rover. One is for backup. Even though the computers contain radiation hardened memories.

Artist Rendition of Curiosity Rover
Artist Rendition of Curiosity Rover | Source

How Big is the Curiosity Rover?

The Curiosity rover is about the size of an SUV car and weighs one ton. NASA has a nice photo of it here.

The precise specs are ...

  • Length: 10 feet
  • Width: 9 feet
  • Height: 7 feet
  • Mass: 1,982 pounds

Curiosity rover has 6 legs with wheels. It got a head and neck too. It has an arm and hands with a drill. It even has a laser.

Its mission is search for conditions favorable for life and/or capable of preserving a record of life. And to help it do that, it has 17 cameras of various types: 8 HazCams, 4 Navcams, 2 MastCams, one MAHLI, one MARDI, and a ChemCam.

Seven of those cameras are on it neck and head with the large "eye" that is the ChemCam.

Curiosity Rover On Board Plaque

And it was one of the rover's Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera that captured the below image of its own plaque that was mounted on the front left side of the rover's deck. The image was taken while the rover is on Mars.

Plaque On Board Curiosity Rover
Plaque On Board Curiosity Rover | Source

The plaque contains the signatures of President Obama, Vice President Biden, and other US officials.

Mars Rover Explained at Jet Propulsion Laboratory

In the below video, Alex of PhdComics.com visits the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California where engineers explain about the Mars Rover and its test lab.

Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is a federally funded research and development center Pasadena, California. It is managed for NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) by California Institute of Technology. I know, the organization chart of these agencies gets complicated.

If you want to learn more about the Curiosity Rover, head to the Mars Science Laboratory website at mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl

Wikipedia also has good info on the rover.

You can follow its tweets on Twitter -- not tweeted by the rover, but by the people at JPL.

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