The mission of NASA's latest Mars rover, Curiosity

Another Mars rover -- the biggest one yet -- is set to land Monday. Read these FAQs to find out what will it be doing there.
Written by Laura Shin, Contributor

In the wee hours of Monday, Eastern Daylight Time, a NASA rover named Curiosity should, if all goes according to plan, land on Mars after a more than eight-month-journey.

While Curiosity is not the first Mars rover, it is much bigger than its predecessors, Spirit and Opportunity. That is mostly due to the fact that its scientific instruments are much bigger -- altogether they weigh 165 pounds, as opposed to 11 pounds on Spirit and Opportunity.

Its $2.5 billion mission is to study the environment of early Mars and assess whether the area it will explore has ever had conditions favorable for life (microbial life, not Martians, unfortunately) -- and whether conditions were favorable for preserving evidence of life.

With that information, NASA will be able to determine how best to shape future missions -- either ones that will bring samples back to Earth for life-detection tests, or for ones that bring life-detection experiments to Mars.

And now that I've piqued your curiosity (terrible pun intended), here are answers to all the questions you haven't thought to ask about Curiosity but should have:

Where exactly on Mars is Curiosity going?

Curiosity will be landing in Mars's Gale Crater, a 96-mile-wide bowl just south of the planet's equator. It's one of the lowest points on Mars, and since we think water once flowed on Mars, we suspect there will be evidence for that in the rocks at the bottom of the crater.

What will it do when it arrives?

NASA will spend the first several weeks checking the rover's condition: Curiosity's computers will get a software upgrade; NASA will test how well its robotic arm works; Curiosity will take its first drive.

What will it spend the next couple years doing?

Within a few months, the rover will start on its travels up Aeolis Mons, a three-mile-high mountain nicknamed Mount Sharp right in the middle of Gale Crater. From orbiting spacecraft, we know that Mount Sharp is made up of layered rocks. Scientists hope that these rocks will provide a history of Mars. For instance, the base of the mountain appears to have clays, which indicates a history of water. As the rover goes up the mountain, its findings would tell us more about Mars's recent history.

How will it collect its data?

Curiosity has a number of sophisticated instruments, some of which seem to come straight from sci-fi films:

  • The ChemCam is a rock-vaporizing laser. As The New York Times reports, it can "turn a smidgen of rock into a puff of glowing, superhot gas from a distance of up to 25 feet." (Do I hear Hollywood calling?) It can then determine what elements are in the rock to see which samples should be further investigated (such as, say, rocks full of carbon).
  • The Sample Analysis at Mars or "Sam" studies ground-up rock by heating samples to 1,800 degrees and then identifying the released gases. That is a crucial step to finding "organics," which are carbon-based molecules. While the presence organics alone wouldn't definitively indicate life on Mars (sometimes nonliving chemical reactions give rise to them), it would give us more hope that life had either previously existed on Mars or does today. Sam will also analyze the atmosphere to either confirm or deny controversial claims that Mars's atmosphere contains methane. If it does, it's possible that microbes are responsible for it.
  • The Radiation Assessment Detector will do exactly what its name says in order to help us plan for future human exploration of Mars.
  • The Times lists other instruments on board: "weather station; a device that shoots particles into the rock and measures X-rays coming out; and several cameras, including one that mimics the hand lens of a geologist for close-up looks at rocks." That last one, NASA says, is the Mars Hand Lens Imager, which will be able to reveal details smaller than the width of a human hair.

How long with Curiosity's mission last?

The rover has the ability to drive for 12.4 miles over one Martian year, which is a little more than a year and 10 months in Earth years. But previous rovers have lasted long beyond their three-month expiration date, with Spirit lasting six years and Opportunity, which landed in 2004, still roving.

How does Curiosity get its power?

Curiosity is powered by plutonium, so the heat of radioactive decay is producing its electricity. This is exactly what the two Voyager spacecraft, which have been traveling for the last 35 years out to the edges of the solar system, have been running on.

Check out this infographic outlining the landing:

The New York Times also has some beautiful graphics of the landing and Curiosity here.

Update, August 6, 2012:

Related on SmartPlanet:

via: NASA press kit and fact sheet, The New York Times

illustrations: Artist's concept of Mars Science Laboratory entry, descent and landing. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

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