Tasked with the mission of determining if Mars was ever a habitat where life could thrive, the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) weighs nearly 1800 pounds, is practically the size of a VW and has a laser canon for evaporating and analyzing rock samples.
In fact, this new rover is so large, that scientists at JPL had to invent a whole new way to land it on the Red Planet. Using a hovering crane to gently place the MSL Rover on the Martial surface, the rover will touch down, waits 2 seconds to confirm that it is on solid ground and then fire small explosive devices to cut the cables from from the descent stage, which will then fly and crash a safe distance away from the MSL.
The MSL then will deploy several high tech goodies for exploration, including three separate cameras (for multiple spectra and true color imaging & microscopic detail imagery), the ChemCam laser canon for evaporating rock samples up to 13 meters away, Alpha-particle X-ray spectrometer, and a host of other experimental devices that make up the 150 pounds in it’s science package.
With all that scientific instrumentation, multiple cameras, and laser canon, the MSL will require so much power, NASA has had to forgo the traditionally successful rover solar arrays and go to nuclear power, in the form of radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs). This isn’t the first time NASA has placed a nuke in a science package. In fact, they’ve been doing it since the days of Apollo and have developed housings that are virtually crash proof.
The MSL is scheduled to launch to Mars in 2009, right after a traditional Viking style lander makes it’s way to the Red Planet.