How the Mars Curiosity Rover Works

Nonstandard Equipment
A look at all the instruments that Curiosity packs
A look at all the instruments that Curiosity packs
© 2012

Whether packing for a two-week vacation or provisioning for a scientific expedition in a hostile desert millions of miles away, the basic problem remains the same:

What to bring, what to bring ....

Unlike a terrestrial tourist, who can pop down to the corner store to replace a forgotten toothbrush, Curiosity is utterly on its own. When there's no repair crew on call, no spare parts in the trunk and every signal from Earth takes around 14 minutes (as of August 2012) to reach you, self-reliance is all you have.

Curiosity isn't on Mars to sightsee, however. It's tasked with collecting rock and soil samples and placing them into onboard instruments for analysis. With this in mind, the rover comes equipped with a 7-foot (2.1-meter) camera mast and a 7-foot, three-jointed robotic arm sporting more attachments than an industrial vacuum cleaner. This Sample Acquisition/Sample Preparation and Handling System will scoop, dust, drill, powder, collect, sort, sieve and deliver samples to a variety of analytical assets [sources: JPL; NASA; Webster]:

  • A miniaturized gas chromatograph and mass spectrometer will separate and analyze chemical compounds in samples.
  • A tunable laser spectrometer will look for organic (carbon-containing) compounds and determine the ratio of key isotopes -- both vital to unlocking Mars's atmospheric and aquatic past.
  • CheMin, an X-ray diffraction and fluorescence instrument, will measure the bulk composition of samples and detect their constituent minerals.
  • Located on the rover arm, the Mars Hand Lens Imager will photograph rocks, soil -- and, if present, ice -- in extreme close-up. This uber-camera can spot details thinner than a human hair or focus on objects more than an arm's length away.
  • The Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer for Mars Science Laboratory, also located on the arm, will figure out the relative amounts of various elements present in Martian rocks and soils.

Curiosity's neck, or mast, is also decked out in instrumentation:

  • The Mars Science Laboratory Mast Camera (MSLMC), attached at human-eye height, will help the rover navigate and record its surroundings in high-resolution stereo and color stills or high-definition video. The MSLMC can view materials collected or treated by the arm.
  • Stereo hazard-avoidance cameras located further down the mast will aid the rover's navigation.
  • Another mast-mounted instrument, ChemCam, will vaporize thin layers of material up to 30 feet (9 meters) away using laser pulses, then analyze them with its spectrometer. Its telescope can capture images of the beam's target area.

Beyond these sample-analysis instruments, the rover also packs scientific gadgets that will examine local conditions, which could prove relevant for future human missions or understanding the planet's capacity for supporting life:

  • The Radiation Assessment Detector will monitor surface radiation levels.
  • The Rover Environmental Monitoring Station will take readings of atmospheric pressure, temperature, humidity and wind, as well as levels of ultraviolet radiation.
  • The Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons instrument can detect hydrogen -- a potential indicator of ice or water trapped in minerals -- up to 3 feet (1 meter) beneath the surface.

That's an impressive array of luxury appointments, but it won't do NASA much good unless Curiosity's got it under the hood. Let's take a peek at what powers this puppy.

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