Mars Science Laboratory blasts off

Mars Science Laboratory blasts off

NASA launches Mars Curiosity rover

NASA's Mars Curiosity rover is a giant science laboratory. It's as big as a car! Curiosity is the largest and best-equipped robot to ever explore another planet.  The Mars rover cost £1.6 billion to build and was launched on November 26 from the Kennedy Space Centre. It will land on Mars in summer 2012, after a journey of eight and a half months.

Have a look at this video from New Scientist, showing Curiosity launching from Earth and landing on Mars:

The aim of Curiosity's mission is to find out whether there has ever been life on Mars. Do aliens really exist? Curiosity is unlikely to find giant green space men. If there has ever been life on Mars it was probably something microscopic, such as bacteria.

Curiosity is packed full of high-tech equipment. My favourite is a powerful laser which has the energy of a million light bulbs. The powerful laser zaps a small bit of red Martian rock and vaporises it. Curiosity will analyse the vaporized rock to see if it contains the elements carbon, nitrogen or oxygen.

On Earth, carbon, nitrogen and oxygen are necessary for life. Nothing can live without at least one of these elements. Scientists think they will probably be necessary for life everywhere in the Universe. If Curiosity finds any of these elements it will use its drill, attached to a 2 metre long robotic arm, to collect rock samples.

Mars Curiosity testing robotic arm

Testing Curiosity's 2 metre long robotic arm (c) NASA/JPL-Caltech

Curiosity also has a weather station to measure temperature, wind and humidity. NASA is planning to launch an app using these readings to show you what the weather is like on Mars. You might be able to get live Martian weather on your phone!

Although Curiosity is the most advanced robot ever to explore another planet, it has major hurdles to overcome to ensure its mission is successful. The hardest part of the mission will be landing on Mars safely, without breaking any of the expensive and high tech equipment.

Smaller Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, used air bags to land on Mars in 2004. Curiosity is far too heavy to use air bags. Instead, the flying-saucer shaped probe which carries Curiosity will use rockets to hover 20 metres above the Martian surface. Once the probe is hovering safely, it will lower Curiosity to the surface of Mars using a "sky crane". Curiosity will become the first robot to abseil onto the surface of another planet!

Mars Curiosity descending from sky crane

Curiosity descending from sky crane (c) NASA/JPL-Caltech

If the landing is successful, Curiosity will explore Mars for at least two years. Curiosity is the first rover to use nuclear power, rather than sunlight, to power the instruments and motors. This means that Curiosity can work through the Martian winters and could potentially work for much longer than anticipated.

Two-thirds of missions that attempt to visit Mars have failed. Curiosity is the most expensive and high tech attempt yet. If Curiosity is successful, it will be a huge achievement for NASA.

Curiosity will land in a huge crater near the Martian equator. After it has landed, Curiosity will climb out of the crater and explore Mars. Any Martian bacteria should watch out. Curiosity is coming to find you!

To find out more about Curiosity and exploring Mars, go to NASA's Mars Science Laboratory.

Curriculum information

  • Summary

    NASA's latest mission to Mars will use a roving vehicle to look for signs of life on the red planet. Use this to capture the imagination of your students to learn more about space and the solar system.

    Curriculum key wordsOther web links
    • Solar system
    • Planets
    • Space
    NASA Mars landers
    Short video clip and images showing rocket launches.
    Video-animation of NASA's Phoenix mars Lander mission
    Science Curriculum Links
    National CurriculumCurriculum for excellenceNorthern Ireland Curriculum
    Applications and implications of science (KS3 1.2, KS4 1.4) Space science (KS3.34b)Developments used to explore space (SCN 4-06a).Space travel (KS4 Physics)