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article imageNuclear-powered rover scheduled to land on Mars in 2012

By Lynn Curwin     Apr 20, 2011 in Technology
Pasadena - Work is almost complete on the Curiosity rover, a nuclear-power vehicle designed to search for past or current signs of life on Mars.
The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity is larger and can perform more intricate functions than the Mars Exploration Rovers.
“It’s a major step forward scientifically,” Fast Co Design quoted project manager Peter Theisinger as saying. “Primarily in the fact that Curiosity will ingest samples into a couple of key instruments, and do a chemical and mineralogical analysis of what we see in the rocks and soil. So MER was more of a geological package, and this is more of a chemical analysis package.”
The semi-automated, nuclear-powered, six-wheel-drive vehicle that can has mounted cameras, an extendable arm for sample gathering, an on-board lab to analyze the samples, and a UHF transmitter to beam the information back to Earth via Mars orbiters.
"Curiosity will have a laser on its mast that can take aim at a rock and vaporize a small spot on it,"Joy Crisp, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said on the agency's website. "This produces a plasma cloud that tells us about that rock's chemistry. We'll look at the light reflected off the cloud to characterize rocks and soils from up to 9 meters away. We’ll be able to classify minerals, ices, and organic molecules without having to drive as much."
Because Curiosity is larger and heavier than its predecessors, propulsive descent jets will be used to cushion its fall. It will travel to Mars inside a protective covering with a heat shield on the bottom. A contraption including eight retro rockets will then attach to Curiosity and lower it to the surface of Mars. A parachute will slow the vehicle's descent until the heat shield is no longer required and pops off. The descent stage will lower the rover to the surface by a tether.
Universe Today reported that four landing sites, where water is believed to have once flowed, are being evaluated and a final decision on a landing site will be made later this year.
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory reported that the rover was tested earlier this year under environmental conditions resembling Martian surface conditions. Air was pumped out to near-vacuum pressure, and the temperature to minus 130 degrees Celsius (minus 202 degrees Fahrenheit) inside the chamber, while powerful lamps simulated the intensity of sunshine on Mars.
The launch of Curiosity is expected to take place between Nov. 25 and Dec. 18,, from Cape Canaveral, Florida. It is scheduled to arrive on Mars in August 2012, and remain on the planet for one Mars year (23 months).
The name for the craft was chosen by 12-year old Clara Ma, who won a rover-naming contest with her essay.
Those working on Curiosity wear special suits to ensure the craft does not become contaminated. Work being done on the rover can be seen live online at USTREAM.
Curiosity can also be followed on Twitter and Facebook.
More about Curiosity, Rover, Mars, NASA
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