A flawless launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on November 26 has NASA’s latest mission to Mars safely on its nearly nine-month journey to the red planet. NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory, a rover that has also been given the name Curiosity, is the American space agency’s most advanced rover to date, and its mission is nothing less than to continue the search for life on Mars and prepare for future human exploration.
Although the speed and maneuverability of the two-ton Curiosity rover may not offer much when it comes to travel on Earth, its capacities in both those regards could transform the study of Mars. According to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s website, Curiosity promises to move across the surface of Mars at a speed vastly beyond the capacity of earlier probes:
Once on the surface, the rover will be able to roll over obstacles up to 75 centimeters (29 inches) high and travel up to 90 meters (295 feet) per hour. On average, the rover is expected to travel about 30 meters (98 feet) per hour, based on power levels, slippage, steepness of the terrain, visibility, and other variables.
The rover will carry a radioisotope power system that generates electricity from the heat of plutonium's radioactive decay. This power source gives the mission an operating lifespan on Mars' surface of a full martian year (687 Earth days) or more, while also providing significantly greater mobility and operational flexibility, enhanced science payload capability, and exploration of a much larger range of latitudes and altitudes than was possible on previous missions to Mars.
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