Discovery Guide: Mars Rover Curiosity

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One of NASA's most ambitious missions to date, the Mars Science Laboratory mission is a robotic spacecraft, called a rover, that will explore the surface of Mars. The rover, named Curiosity, landed on the Red Planet on Aug. 5, 2012 at 10:32 p.m. PDT. Curiosity will act as a mobile science laboratory on Mars to investigate whether life could exist on the Red Planet and even help scientists and engineers plan for future human missions to Mars. While Curiosity will not be the first rover ever sent to Mars, it will certainly be the most advanced. Eight years in the making, the rover is equipped with 17 cameras, a handful of instruments and an innovative landing system. And that's just the beginning to its list of cool features.

As the mission begins exploring its landing site in Gale Crater, check out these fun facts and activities to learn about Mars and all the innovations that make the Mars Science Laboratory mission and its Curiosity rover one of NASA's most exciting space missions. Start reading and see what you discover. Or click the links below to go directly to fun facts and activities you want to explore most!

› Cool Things About Mars
› Cool Things About the Mission
› Cool Things About the Curiosity Rover

Cool Things About Mars

Named after the Roman god of war, Mars is often referred to as the "Red Planet" for its reddish color when viewed from afar. Learn what makes Mars appear red:

Mars has a diameter about as wide as the continent of Africa. Its overall size, or surface area, is about eight times less than Earth's, but it has the same amount of dry land.

Mars is the fourth planet from the sun, which is more than 100 million miles away from the Red Planet. Because the orbits of Earth and Mars are elliptical, or oval-shape, the distance between them at any given time changes dramatically - by more than 200 million miles!

Cold and windy with wind gusts of up to 90 mph - as strong as some hurricane winds on Earth -- Mars is home to dust storms and quickly moving whirlwinds known as dust devils. Temperatures on the planet can get as cold as minus 199 degrees Fahrenheit.

The Red Planet is home to iron-rich rocks and minerals, volcanoes, ice and one of the largest and deepest canyon systems in the solar system, Valles Marineris, which extends farther than nine Grand Canyons.

Since the 1960s, NASA spacecraft have searched for signs or evidence of life on Mars. Although it appears unlikely that complex organisms similar to advanced life on Earth could have existed on Mars, scientists still wonder whether very simple microbes could have once survived on Mars. By learning more about the history of water on Mars - one of the key pieces to life as we know it on Earth - scientists hope to discover whether life ever could have existed on the Red Planet.

› Activities: Mars for Kids
› Activity: Imagine Mars
› Activity: Mars Student Imaging Project
› Activity: Is There Water on Mars
› Resources: All About Mars
› Video: Mars in a Minute: Is Mars Really Red?
› Interactive: Ask Dr. C, Your Personal Mars Expert
› Game: Be a Martian

Cool Things About the Mission

Designed to do some of the same tasks that scientists perform in a laboratory - investigating objects under a microscope, analyzing materials to find out what they're made of and so on - the Mars Science Laboratory is named for exactly what it is: a science laboratory for Mars.

The Mars Science Laboratory's Curiosity rover launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Nov. 26, 2011 at 7:02 a.m. PST and landed in Mars' Gale Crater on Aug. 5, 2012 at 10:32 p.m. PDT.

The spacecraft spent eight months traveling to Mars. When it arrived on Aug. 5, it began a tricky process called entry, descent and landing. During this process, the shell that protected the spacecraft during its journey to Mars released a parachute to slow the spacecraft as it zoomed down to the Martian surface. Seconds later, the bottom of the shell, called the heat shield, dropped away. Then the remaining piece of the shell separated from the spacecraft, and a special vehicle slowly lowered the rover to the surface of Mars.

The Curiosity rover is about the size of a car, but it's not quite as fast. With a top speed of only 1.5 inches per second, Curiosity needs a place to land that's not only clear of rocks and other landing hazards, but also full of interesting places to investigate nearby. Mars scientists - 150 of them! - considered 60 different landing sites before picking Gale Crater. About as large as Connecticut and Rhode Island, combined, Gale Crater was chosen because it is thought to contain elements that are important to the search for the ingredients of life.

By investigating the area around its landing site, the Curiosity rover will study whether Gale Crater on Mars is or was a place that could sustain life. Like a scientist in a laboratory, Curiosity will closely examine rocks and soils to see if they contain any of the ingredients necessary for life as we know it. These studies will also help scientists and engineers plan for future human missions to the Red Planet.

Controlling the Curiosity rover from Earth will be a big job that will keep the rover drivers busy during the mission's planned 98 weeks of exploration. Each Martian morning, they'll send instructions to the rover, which means they'll need to work on Mars time - at least for the first part of the mission. Each day on Mars is about 40 minutes longer than a day on Earth, so the drivers will start their work days 40 minutes later each day than on the previous day to stay on the same schedule as Curiosity.

Only three NASA rovers have ever roamed the Red Planet; Curiosity will be the fourth. While most of these rovers are now retired, one called Opportunity is still actively exploring Mars. Besides Opportunity, NASA has two other spacecraft orbiting the Red Planet. Both of these spacecraft, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Odyssey, will help Curiosity communicate with Earth when it lands in August 2012.

› Activity: Marsbound! Mission to the Red Planet
› Activity: Let's Investigate Mars
› Activity: Getting Dirty on Mars
› Activity: Then and Now -- Follow the Water
› Video: The Challenges of Getting to Mars: Transporting a Mars Rover
› Video: Mars in a Minute: How Do You Get to Mars?
› Game: Build Your Own Space Mission

Cool Things About the Curiosity Rover

A rover is a kind of mobile robotic spacecraft that scientists and engineers can send to the surface of a planet and control remotely from Earth. Rovers come in handy when scientists want to explore places that humans cannot or have not visited - or when the conditions make human exploration much more difficult. So far, the moon and Mars are the only places beyond Earth ever visited by rovers.

Scientists and engineers spend so much time working with the Mars rovers that the robots become almost like pets. And just like pets, the rovers get names that often say a lot about their "personalities." Curiosity got its name from student Clara Ma, who as a sixth grader, entered an essay contest to name the next Mars rover. Her essay was chosen from 9,000 entries and as part of her winnings, Ma signed her name on the rover before it was packed for its journey to Mars.

About the size of car, Curiosity weighs 1,982 pounds. That's more than five times the weight of the previous Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, which are about the size of a golf cart.

While the previous Mars rovers all had a similar landing strategy, Curiosity's landing on Aug. 5, 2012, was the first of its kind. But it wasn't be any easier. Landing is a tricky maneuver that requires special gear to protect, slow and safely lower the spacecraft to the surface of Mars.

First, the spacecraft was packed into a shell that protected it during its journey to Mars and during its descent to the surface of the planet, when temperatures got as hot as 3,800 degrees Fahrenheit. As the shell holding the spacecraft zoomed to the surface of Mars at about 900 mph, a parachute - the biggest ever built for a space mission - was released and acted like brakes to slow the spacecraft down. The spacecraft's protective shell fell away and a special device holding the rover fired its eight jets and released Curiosity on a bungee-like apparatus called the "sky crane." The entire process, called the entry, descent and landing, took about seven minutes.

Like a science laboratory, Curiosity is packed with special instruments and cameras for doing all kinds of studies while on Mars. It has a total of 17 cameras that will act as the rover's "eyes" helping Curiosity get where it needs to go and investigate objects and soil it comes across. The rover also has 10 science instruments (some of them are part of the group of 17 cameras) to do many of the tasks scientists do in a lab. So instead of sending the samples back to Earth for humans to analyze, the Curiosity rover will be able to do laboratory tests right from Mars.

The Curiosity rover is planned to operate on the surface of Mars for one Martian year. Because a day on Mars is longer than one on Earth -39 minutes and 35.244 seconds longer, to be exact - a Martian year is equal to 98 weeks, or 687 days, on Earth.

› Resource: Robotic Space Exploration
› Resource: Where is Curiosity
› Interactive: Curiosity Photosynth
› Video: Rover Chat for Students
› Game: ROVER