by ANDY FLEMING
NASA's latest rover to explore the Martian Surface: The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), otherwise known as Curiosity
As featured on 102.4 Radio Hartlepool's Solid Gold Sunday with Andy Fleming
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Currently investigating the Martian surface, Curiosity is NASA’s latest rover to explore the surface of the Red Planet. It’s part of their Mars Exploration Program, a long-term effort of robotic exploration of the planet. Curiosity was designed to assess whether Mars ever had an environment able to support small life forms called microbes. In other words, its mission is to determine the planet's habitability.
To help in this task, the rover carries the biggest, most advanced suite of instruments for scientific studies ever sent to the Martian surface. The record of the planet's climate and geology is essentially written in its rocks and soil - in their formation, structure, and chemical composition. Curiosity's on-board laboratory is currently analysing samples of these rocks and soils, and also the local geologic setting in order to detect the chemical building blocks of life on Mars. These include complex organic chemicals that contain carbon, perhaps even amino acids. From such studies Curiosity is assessing what the Martian environment was like in the past.
The rover is able to roll over obstacles up to 75 centimetres in height and on average can travel about 30 meters per hour, based on power levels and steepness of the terrain. Curiosity uses a radioisotope power system that generates electricity from the heat of plutonium's radioactive decay. This power source gives the mission a lifespan of nearly two years, much more than the previous highly successful Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity that relied on solar panel, always vulnerable to Martian dust storms.