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Curious about Curiosity: a quick look at NASA’s $2.5 billion Mars rover

The $2.5 billion Mars rover Curiosity landed on the Red Planet Mars on Aug.5, 2012 and is expected to spend at least two years exploring its Gale Crater landing site. The rover is designed to determine if the Red Planet could have ever supported microbial life and if humans could survive there someday!

NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity unfolded its robotic arm for the first time on the Red Planet Monday (Aug. 20) and performed an intricate series of test maneuvers to pass a critical health check with flying colors making sure the 7-foot-long (2.1-meter) arm is in good working condition. Curiosity’s robotic arm has five joints and is tipped with sophisticated instruments to get close information on Mars.

The Mission Managers said that more robotic arm tests are needed before Curiosity can begin using the appendage to study Mars. Curiosity’s robotic arm is one of 10 high-tech instruments built into the car-size rover to study Mars like never before. Monday’s arm checkout came one day after Curiosity shot a nearby rock with a laser built into its mast to make sure the tool worked properly. The laser system, like the robotic arm, worked as expected.

Its jointed Robotic Arm with instrument turret carries a rock drill, soil sampling scoop, radiation-emitting experiment and a camera equipped with a magnifying lens. The nuclear powered, six-wheeled science lab is the size of a car and weight 1,982 pounds (899 kilograms).

It has a Mast that carries wide-angle and telephoto digital cameras as well as a powerful infrared laser for analyzing rock compositions. Its Radiator Detector is used to measure surface radiation that could be harmful to life. Through its Antennas data can be transmitted to orbiting Mars satellites or directory to Earth. Its nuclear battery can provide up to 14 years of electric power.

The rover is equipped with two computers, but only one is active at a time. Both are built around a radiation-hardened BAE RAD750 microchip operating at up to 200 megahertz. Each computer is equipped with 2 gigabytes of flash memory, 256 megabytes of random access memory and 256 kilobytes of erasable programmable read-only memory. But given the unavoidable limitations in processing speed and memory, Curiosity’s programmers face a daunting task when it comes to writing software. If all goes well, the R10 software update will be complete early next week.

Curiosity is fully armed with the right components to assess whether the Martian environment has ever been a potential habitat for life. Curiosity’s instruments are capable of verifying three conditions that would be needed by Mars life: liquid water, certain chemicals and energy source.