This animation depicts what will happen in August 2012 if all goes as planned for Curiosity, NASA's next Mars rover. This rover is much larger and and more competent than the previous rovers. It is about the size of a small car and has an entire suite of experiments on board. During entry it uses a series of thrusters to maneuver to the designated landing area. Once the ship has slowed down to Mach two (keep in mind that the atmospheric pressure on the surface of Mar's is of the order .05% that of Earth's) a parachute is deployed. As the vehicle slows the heat shield comes off and a radar detects how close the surface is approaching in order to slow for a smooth landing. The last daring step is a so called 'sky crane' which lowers the rover with a long cable from the rocket thrusted ship above. Eventually Curiosity will begin roving, but it won't be limited to roving only during the day by solar panels as the previous rovers were. The large tilted box on the back of the rover contains 4.8 kg of plutonium dioxide which emits heat serving as the power source of the rover. The power should keep flowing for much longer than the minimum specked science mission of two Earth years. The rover will seek out rough rocks such as ancient Martian riverbeds or canyons where evidence of early environments on Mars can be found. The ability to navigate to these areas is an important science requirement for the rover and is one of the reasons for the rover's large size and nuclear battery which should allow it to travel at least 20 kilometers during its lifetime. Geologists and astrobiologists also want to know if certain conditions such as those necessary for organic molecules are present. In the video a laser and a drill are shown performing experiments. The laser is ChemCam which will project onto hard to reach rocks and detect the reflected light in order to discern the chemical composition of rocks. The drill is about a centimeter in diameter and will extract the dust from the holes it creates to run experiments in mineralogy (the laser device inside the rover shown in the video) or detecting organic molecules. All of these experiments aim to answer the question, could Mars have had an environment capable of supporting life at one time?
If the sky crane works we may soon know the answer to this question. Curiosity has a launch window from November 25 to December 18, 2011 from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. And in other news NASA's James Webb Space Telescope is being threatened with the axe in budget bill in the U.S. House of Representatives today. NASA will never run out of adversaries pulling it down: Gravity and the budget.