Since their arrivals on opposite sides of Mars in January 2004 the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity have performed above and beyond anyone's wildest dreams. After more than six years on the Martian surface, Spirit ceased transmitting in March of 2010, and while many attempts to re-establish contact were made, none were successful and the book on Spirit was officially closed in May of this year. Opportunity remains operational and has logged over 21 miles during its investigations. It is currently on its way to a feature called Cape York, where it will spend the winter in an area favorable for maintaining power to its solar batteries. Pretty impressive when you consider they were each given life expectancies of only 90 days. While I will make no predictions on how much longer Opportunity will last, if the combination of good engineering and favorable surface conditions continue it may very well live to see itself become obsolete.
About every two years the positions of Earth and Mars in their orbits allow for an optimal trajectory between the two planets. 30 days from now we will be in the next of these launch windows and the latest Mars rover will be sent on its way. Scheduled for liftoff at 9:25 AM CST, on Nov. 25th, (the day after Thanksgiving in the U.S, so you have no excuse not to watch on NASA TV or follow it online) the Mars Science Laboratory aboard the rover Curiosity will be the largest and most complex robot ever sent to the Martian surface. The size of a small SUV, the rover is packed with a multitude of scientific instruments that will study the atmosphere, the geology, the chemistry, and (potentially) the biochemistry in and around its intended landing site. Also, upping the awesomeness quotient by a factor of 100, it will be the first rover ever equipped with a frickin' laser defense system! Oh alright, the laser is technically part of the science payload, and its primary purpose will be to zap rocks and let other instruments examine the gases that are created or escape as a result, but if any little green men get too close...
Other fun Curiosity features include a 7-foot robotic arm for taking soil samples (the laboratory has tools to run many experiments on Martian dirt), tons of cameras, and a plutonium-238 power source, as solar panels would be unable to generate the energy necessary to run the rover's many systems. And for all you GD hippies now worried about radioactive contamination, keep in mind that with the thin atmosphere and lack of a magnetic field, the Martian surface is quite irradiated already, so Curiosity's impact will be negligible. The chosen landing site is the floor of the Gale Crater, a feature about 90 miles in diameter right along the Martian equator. Of the 30 sites that were considered, it rose to the top of the heap for having terrain that was both scientifically interesting and not too difficult for the rover to traverse. It would have been off limits to previous rovers, but improvements in our abilities to both build rovers and to land them precisely put the site on the table.
What will Curiosity find there? Who knows? And if we did know, what would be the point in going? So make it a point to watch the launch next month before you head off to the mall, though you might just want to make sure you pre-order the Curiosity replica (a must-have item for this holiday season, laser sadly not included) to put under the tree for junior just in case. Then, if all goes well, Curiosity will land in Gale Crater in August of 2012 to begin its 23 month (a full Martian year) primary mission. Those of you in need of more technical details can head over to the Mars Science Laboratory home page and geek out for a bit, and anyone with the Google Earth software can instantly call up the most up to date satellite images of the Martian surface and explore to their heart's content.