Photo Gallery: Last Look at Mars Rover Curiosity Before Launch

Curiosity's Descent Stage

Robert Z. Pearlman/

Curiosity will next be integrated with its descent stage, seen here, which will take it to the Martian surface. The rover will use a bold, new landing system. Like Viking, Pathfinder and the Mars Exploration Rovers that came before it, Mars Science Laboratory will be slowed by a large parachute. As the spacecraft loses speed, rockets will fire, controlling the spacecraft's descent until the rover separates from its final delivery system, the sky crane. Like a large crane on Earth, the sky crane touchdown system will lower the rover to a "soft landing" — wheels down-on the surface of Mars, ready to begin its mission.

Curiosity's Aeroshell

Robert Z. Pearlman/

Once mated to its descent stage, the Mars Science Laboratory will be placed inside its aeroshell that will protect Curiosity during its deep space cruise to Mars. The hatchway opening in the aeroshell will allow engineers access a few days before launch to install the rover's power source, a radioisotope power system that generates electricity from the heat of plutonium's radioactive decay. This power source gives the mission an operating lifespan on Mars' surface of at least a full Martian year (687 Earth days, or 1.9 Earth years).

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Robert Z. Pearlman Editor, Contributor

Robert Pearlman is a space historian, journalist and the founder and editor of, an online publication and community devoted to space history with a particular focus on how and where space exploration intersects with pop culture. Pearlman is also a contributing writer for and co-author of "Space Stations: The Art, Science, and Reality of Working in Space” published by Smithsonian Books in 2018. He previously developed online content for the National Space Society and Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, helped establish the space tourism company Space Adventures and currently serves on the History Committee of the American Astronautical Society, the advisory committee for The Mars Generation and leadership board of For All Moonkind. In 2009, he was inducted into the U.S. Space Camp Hall of Fame in Huntsville, Alabama. In 2021, he was honored by the American Astronautical Society with the Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History.