When you think of a spacecraft on Mars, many people draw something small, like the microwave-sized Sojourner that landed on Mars in 1997, or the Opportunity and Spirit golf rover that landed in 2004. But Curiosity marks the beginning of much larger rovers, as It’s the car’s perseverance and much heavier than its flagship brethren. This increase in size and mass means that newer roving vehicles can carry more complex scientific instruments, turning roving vehicles from pint-sized explorers who can collect only basic data to mobile labs. This principle is where Curiosity got the name of its technical mission, the Mars Science Laboratory.
But the larger and heavier rover faces a greater challenge as to how to land on Mars. Previous generations of Mars rovers were covered with airbags and basically dropped onto the surface where they bounced before coming to a halt, with air in the airbags to protect them from impact. But Curiosity’s large mass made the airbags ineffective, so a new landing system was developed.
The celestial crane system that brought both Curiosity and Perseverance safely to the surface of Mars operates using a jetpack that fires thrusters to slow the descent while the rover is lowered onto a set of cables. Once the rover lands, the cables separate and the jet beam is blown away to prevent any entanglement between it and the rover. This system helps position the rover in a specific and predictable location, as opposed to unexpected recoil of the airbags, and can safely let down many heavy vehicles.
Curiosity instantly captured the hearts of the public and has produced stunning images of the landscape of Mars as well as beautiful images of clouds in addition to her work searching for signs of ancient life and measuring the atmosphere of Mars. Some of the most popular outreach projects have included massive high-resolution panoramas and videos showing Gale Crater, as she explores.
Mars is still a challenging environment, and Curiosity has had to face challenges like sharp rocks that have wrecked its wheels. To mitigate this issue, the rover driving team is being careful about how they use curiosity to ensure that the least possible damage is done to the device so it can keep running for as long as possible.
“Once you land on Mars, everything you do depends on the fact that there’s no one around to fix it for 100 million miles,” Andy Myshkin, acting Curiosity project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement. “It’s all about smart use of what’s already in your rover.”