She’s a rover with places to go and things to do, so one of the main components of NASA’s next Mars rover, the Mars Science Lab (named Curiosity) is wheels. Last week, the wheels and a suspension system were installed on the rover, an important step in getting ready for her mission to Mars. Launch is currently scheduled for sometime between November 25 and Decemeber 18, 2011, and Curiosity’s mission is to study its landing site for habitable environments – both ancient and current.
There are four landing sites on Mars that are still in the running: Eberswalde Crater Delta (24.0°S, 327.0°E), Holden Crater (26.4°S, 325.3°E), Gale Crater ( 4.6°S, 137.2°E) and Mawrth Vallis (24.0°N, 341.0°). Wherever Curiosity goes, she will examine rocks, soil and atmosphere with a diverse payload of tools, including a laser to vaporize patches of rock from a distance and an instrument designed to test for organic compounds. (Watch the video for a demonstration).
Curiosity has six wheels, each of which has its own drive motor, and it uses a rocker-bogie suspension system like the previous Mars rovers, Spirit, Opportunity and Sojourner.
But the landing system is completely different. Curiosity is too large to use an airbag system, so it will used a Sky-Crane, a rocket-powered descent stage that lowers the rover directly onto the Martian surface on a tether.
If Curiosity launches during the currently scheduled launch window, she will land in August 2012.