Curiosity, the latest generation of Mars-exploring rovers developed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge, made its official media debut on Monday.
The 2,000-pound, six-wheeled mobile space laboratory and sister components designed to land it safely on the Red Planet’s surface later this year were on display in the facility’s 9,600-square-foot “clean room.” Here, engineers, scientists and reporters alike must remain covered head-to-toe in special white suits to prevent the interplanetary spread of earthly bacteria spores.
Curiosity continues the search by previous rovers Spirit and Opportunity for evidence that past or present conditions on Mars could sustain life, but rover design changes and new equipment — including a rock-zapping laser, onboard chemistry lab and self-sustaining nuclear power generator — promise an increased scientific payload.
“This time we’re carrying much more capabilities, including an analytical lab instrument suite that can look for [arrangements of carbon-based molecules that are] the building blocks of life. We’re looking for the hydrocarbons that would tell us whether the conditions for life existed, and that helps us cement the story of what kind of past Mars had,” said Peter Illsley, a lead rover engineer.