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JPL readies new Mars rover

Curiosity undergoes 'clean room' testing prior to late 2011 launch.

April 04, 2011|By Joe Piasecki, joe.piasecki@latimes.com

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.

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At about 10 feet long, Curiosity is twice the size of both Spirit and Opportunity. And though its sturdy aluminum chassis is relatively lightweight, Curiosity is also about five times as heavy, partially because it carries its own plutonium-based power source.

Spirit and Opportunity, which drew power from solar panels, were limited to exploring near the planet’s equator, where sunlight levels remain high enough to provide heat and power for the vehicles. Curiosity is free to explore landing sites much further away from the planet’s center, but like previous orbiters will communicate with Earth via satellites orbiting Mars.

The new rover’s size and weight also required scientists to abandon Spirit and Opportunity’s airbag landing system for a parachute mechanism that will land Curiosity on its 20-inch aluminum wheels.

Curiosity will launch sometime between Nov. 25 and Dec. 18 from Cape Canaveral, Fla., carried by rocket to Mars for an August 2012 landing, protected inside a heat-shielding Apollo-style capsule made of material similar to the tiles that insulate the space shuttles.

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