The thing about expeditions to Mars is that it takes such a long time to get there, in this case 253 days, that people often forget about the expedition. Unless you follow space news devotedly you're likely to only see a 20 second blurb about the landing on the news.
The Mars Science Laboratory, or Curiosity, launched on November 26th, 2011 and it slated to land on August 6th, 2012. The rover is equipped to explore for at least 687 Earth days, which would make up a full Martian year.
What makes this rover different from all the rest? The Curiosity is a huge leap forward in technology for us, and a 2.5 billion dollar one at that. For the first time, we'll have a rover on Mars that will be able to sample soil and rocks from the surface. When the previous rovers, Spirit and Opportunity landed on Mars in 2004, they only carried five scientific instruments on them. Curiosity has ten instruments that weight a whopping 75 kilograms.
The increase in payloads and some new and quite frankly amazing landing capabilities (as seen in the video below) make this a state-of-the-art masterpiece.
Now given, rolling around taking soil samples and analyzing them isn't exactly the awesome action people expect from a rover expedition. Doug McCuistion, the director of NASA's Mars program says that this is not a life-detection mission.
The Mars Science Laboratory has four goals:
- Determine whether Mars could ever support life
- Study the climate of Mars
- Study the geology of Mars
- Plan for a human mission to Mars
That first and the last make for some exciting studies that give hope for the future of Space travel. To contribute to the goals, MSL has created six specific objectives.
- Determine the mineralogical composition of the Martian surface and near-surface geological materials.
- Attempt to detect chemical building blocks of life, also known as biosignatures
- Interpret the processes that have formed and modified rocks and soils.
- Assess long-timescale Martian atmospheric evolution processes.
- Determine present-state, distribution, and cycling of water and carbon dioxide.
- Characterize the broad spectrum of surface radiation, including galactic radiation, cosmic radiation, solar proton events and secondary neutrons.