Mars rovers "Spirit" and "Opportunity" were successful beyond NASA's wildest dreams. Now they're building a new, nuclear-powered Mini Cooper-sized rover to be lowered onto Mars by a hovering drop ship in 2013. Meet "Curiosity," the new Mars Science Laboratory.
If we can love cars on Earth, we sure as heck can love them when they're shot across the cosmos to land on another planet to do some pretty astounding science. Take a couple minutes to watch the above animation and it becomes abundantly clear NASA is aiming for a whole different level of robotic exploration with its next rover program. The Mars Science Laboratory program was originally started back in 2003 with an estimated price tag of $1.62B, since then it's undergone delays while new technologies were invented to support the ambitious plans and suffered a major setback when over 1,000 parts were manufactured from substandard titanium. The current estimated costs for the program is right around $2.4B, pocket change.
Like NASA's previous missions to Mars, the rover starts out in a pod of sorts and slows in the atmosphere until a parachute can be deployed. With previous missions the next step was to gently float to the ground or descend inside a big bouncy ball, now NASA's planning to lower the rover with a drop ship of sorts. The "sky crane" will make a powered descent and hover as it lowers the rover to the ground via cables. If all goes as planned, the rover currently nicknamed "Curiosity" will land on Mars sometime in 2013 and it should make a pretty serious impression when it gets there, the beast weighs in at 1,984 lbs. You'll notice a distinct lack of solar panels on this beast and that's because it's, wait for it, nuclear-powered! It was only a matter of time before the concept in the Ford Nucleon would see the light of day. Curiosity be the most capable robotic lab ever to examine Mars with several X-Ray spectrometers, a laser-based chemical composition analysis system, abilities to measure local radiation and neutron levels, weather monitoring systems. Pretty freakin' cool.
[BBC, NASA (make sure to check out the Photosynth of the Rover, very interesting)]