Nasa is getting ready to throw a Mini Cooper-sized mobile science lab up into space. Curiosity, as the rover is affectionately called, is headed toward Mars with a payload of lasers and mass spectrometers and multi-million dollar robotic drills-basically all the stuff needed to prove fourth planet conditions are capable of supporting microbial life… conditions depending, of course. But in order for Curiosity to even get the chance at an alien discovery, it can't show up dressed as a multi-million dollar fireball.
Nasa engineers started brainstorming how exactly to land their lab in 2003, and they quickly found themselves up against three big barriers to safe entry. The first: the rover's size. At nearly 2000 pounds, it is much bigger than any of Nasa's previous Mars-bound rovers. Second: Engineers know roughly where touchdown will take place, but they have no idea what kind of boulders, craters or other uneven ground is waiting there. An unexpected rock should make the mission, not tip the whole thing over. Third: Rovers typically land on a platform that they have to dismount upon arrival. If the egress is too steep due to a hill landing, for instance, the whole mobile lab could go wheels over instruments.
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