“Curiosity” on Mars!August 6, 2012
The Mars rover Curiosity dropped onto the Martian surface just after 1:30 AM EDT today. It is the biggest rover yet to successfully land on Mars, at about 2000 pounds, about the same weight as a small car, according to NASA. (A Mini Cooper weighs just a bout 2500 pounds.) It weighs over four times that of the Opportunity and Spirit rovers that landed on Mars in 2004. Opportunity is still running around Mars, far beyond its design life, having traveled over 20 kilometers – and was designed to travel 600 meters!
Unlike the previous rovers, Curiosity has a small nuclear power plant. The others were limited by the amount of power that could be created by their solar panels. The extreme low temperatures of the Martian winter and the lack of sunlight caused those rovers to be movable only a few months of the year. The Curiosity’s power plant should provide about four times the power and has a design life of 14 years. One of the planned tasks is to drive over to the mountain in the crater where the rover landed, and climb it!
The most amazing thing about the landing is that the JPL folks developed a unique way to softly land the rover on the surface. A rocket powered frame was released a few kilometers off the surface, and the rover was lowered on cables while the frame hovered. And this was all done with no assistance from Earth!