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Curiosity on its way to Mars on Nov. 26, 2011
United Launch Alliance

Mars or Bust
It’s the size of a car, weighs a ton, shoots lasers and is powered by a nuclear-based power system. The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) — which is on its way to the red planet now with touchdown expected in August — is built tough.

But the MSL, named Curiosity by NASA scientists, also has a delicate, intelligent side. Mounted on its back is the most sensitive laboratory ever sent to another world. Its mission: to find evidence that Mars could have supported life. If they find it, Mars would be the target for future life-seeking missions.
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testing precision of movement on Curiosity’s robotic arm
NASA/JPL-Caltech

“We have very high hopes for the Mars Science Laboratory, both in the area of science and in the area of technology,” says David Beaty, Mars chief scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab.

Robots are crucial for this mission and others like it, as no nearby planets are friendly to humans. “There are people who feel that exploring space is not worth the risk to human life, no matter the potential for discovery,” Beaty says. “Robots obviously eliminate that level of risk.”

Temperatures on Mars can dip as low as 225 degrees below zero, and the planet is scoured by massive dust storms. Essentially, it would take a wearable spaceship for a human to survive a five-second stroll there. But rovers can handle the conditions there; they’ve already proved it.

In 2003, NASA sent a pair of six-wheeled robots called Spirit and Opportunity to Mars, part of a 90-day mission that turned into an eight-year odyssey. Their performance was impressive: Spirit, which drove 4.8 miles, died in 2010; Opportunity, still active, has driven more than 21 miles. They became icons of the new way to explore space.

The rover now on the way to Mars dwarfs those pioneers. Every one of its six wheels has its own driving motor. It will explore approximately 330 feet each day. The MSL is carrying 10 times the amount of payload of the other rovers — and that means it can collect samples with an arm, drop them into tubes on its back, conduct experiments and beam results back to eager scientists on Earth.

MSL is well armed for science. An instrument named ChemCam uses a laser to vaporize thin layers of material from Martian rocks more than 23 feet away. It then finds the chemical makeup using a spectrometer, a device that can identify materials by the way their atoms react after being zapped by the beam. Though they are less expensive than humans to send into space, robot explorers are by no means cheap. Curiosity cost $2.5 billion to build and launch. In an era of tight budgets, there is a perception that either robots or humans can explore space. But after 2012, it won’t be a matter of us versus them; they are already going. And make no mistake: Humanity cannot explore space without robots.

But, as Beaty points out, humans have advantages as well, like the ability to adapt to surprises and make snap decisions. “This is especially valuable in exploring unknown places, because we know there will be surprises,” he says. “The most effective exploration system is probably one in which robots and humans are working cooperatively together, each doing the things that they do best.”