NASA's next Mars rover just got a new set of wheels and an innovative suspension system in preparation for its journey to the red planet.
The Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity, a robot car is scheduled to launch in 2011 and reach Mars soil in August 2012. Each of its six new wheels is about 20 inches (about half a meter) in diameter.
The ambitious rover is designed to collect samples and conduct tests on rocks across the Martian surface in order to dissect the planet's geological history.
Unlike past rovers, which set down on Mars with landers, the new rover's design is built to allow Curiosity to touch down on the Martian surface directly. Though it possesses the same number of wheels (six) and the rocker-bogie suspension system of previous NASA Mars rovers like Spirit, Opportunity and Sojourner, Curiosity's mobility system is uniquely capable of absorbing the shock of a rocket-powered landing.
"In this case the first thing to touch the ground is not the petal of the lander but the wheels of the rover itself," said Guy Webster, a spokesperson for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., which is building the rover.
Previous rovers were encased in folded-up petals that were packed inside air bags for the journey to Mars, Webster said. Upon landing, these air bags bounced on the surface of Mars, and then their panels opened up, exposing the wheels. [Best and worst Mars landings.]
"It is the first time we've done this before, but we do intend to use it in the future as well," Curiosity mission leader Michael Watkins of JPL told SPACE.com. "It's a more mass-efficient way to land. We don't have to carry a separate heavy pallet below the rover, and it also weighs less."
The lower packaging mass frees up more room for the rover and its science equipment. Without its novel landing system, the 1,980 pounds (900 kg) rover would have had to set aside a few hundred kilograms of its payload to house the airbag and landing platform, Watkins said.
Curiosity's science gear includes a laser that will be used to vaporize rocks from a distance and an instrument that can test for organic compounds that could offer hope that life may have once existed on the planet.
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