NASA's Mars Science Laboratory--artist conceptThey just keep getting bigger and better—and curiouser. The next generation Mars rover—The Mars Science Laboratory, "Curiosity"—is well off the drawing board and into its gestation phase…no longer just a gleam in the eye of robotics engineers and Marsologists.
In 1997 there was the grandmother of all Mars rovers, Sojourner—a high-tech breadbox on wheels that crawled about the immediate area of its landing site in Ares Vallis, at the downstream end of an outflow structure. Sojourner (the rover portion of the overall Pathfinder lander) took 3-D images, performed chemical analyses on rocks, and successfully tested the "bounce around the landscape in an airbag" concept of landing on another planet.
Next up were Sojourner's successors—dare I say Prodigal Sons?—Spirit and Opportunity. A step up in stature, these self-sufficient science labs on wheels are about the size of small dinner tables with camera masts stretching 5 feet into the sky. Equipped with the almost prerequisite stereoscopic cameras, rock grinders, microscopic cameras, and a plethora of other instruments, these Mars Exploration Rovers far outlasted their original mission timelines—by years. Landing in 2004, Spirit only recently ceased transmission (temporarily or permanently is yet to be seen), and Opportunity is still roving, on its way to Endeavor Crater to see what it may see.
And now? It's bigger! It's better! It's the new Mars Science Laboratory, Curiosity! The next rover mission is currently being assembled and tested, in preparation for a launch in the Fall of 2011 and arrival at Mars early in 2012. Weighing in at 1,875 pounds (Earth-weight) and with a camera-mast height of nearly 7 feet, Curiosity will carry the most extensive and advanced set of instrumentation and analysis capability of any lander yet sent to Mars.
It's mission: to determine if the environment on Mars is, or ever was, capable of supporting microbial life.
Past missions have been focused incrementally on making new discoveries about the once mysterious, and currently astonishing (and still mysterious), Mars. The first robots to venture forth to the Red Planet—Mariner 4 and Mariner 9, particularly—gave us our first close-up look at Mars' cratered desert surface, its thin atmosphere, and the global dust storms that it is famous for. Missions to follow include the twin Viking landers in the late 1970's that gave us our first views from the surface of another planet, and also performed chemical experiments to search for the telltale signs of life—though results on that score are inconclusive.
Continuing exploration missions—Mars Global Surveyor, Mars Odyssey, Mars Express, and now the powerful Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter—have filled in many details of Mars' exquisite geography, water/ice processes, meteorology, and chemical composition.
The principal mission of the twins Spirit and Opportunity was to find evidence of past—or present—liquid water on Mars…the conclusion of which is that we're nearly certain that there was.
And it is the knowledge of past Martian seas, and possibly present submartian liquid water, that seems to make some almost taste the presence of microbial Martians, be they live or fossilized. Hence, the mission of the Mars Science Laboratory takes us on the next step of our journey to answer that age old question: is there life beyond Earth? Do tell….