NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) spacecraft, housing the unmanned Curiosity rover, set upon a monumental, 9-month, 352-million-mile journey to its final destination–Gale Crater near the base of Mount Sharp on Mars–with help from a powerful Atlas V 541 launch vehicle. In fact, this November 2011 mission marked the first launch of United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V 541 configuration.
Roughly the size of a Mini Cooper car, the Curiosity rover weighs in at nearly 2000 pounds and measures 9 feet by 9 feet. It is reportedly twice the length and five times the weight of the previous Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers. At the same time, its payload–composed of various scientific instruments–has a mass more than 10 times that of past Mars exploration missions. NASA is calling Curiosity “the most advanced rover ever to land on another planet.”
This unique, unmanned rover has achieved several “firsts” and continues to attain even more. Among its accomplishments are “zapping” the first Martian rocks with a laser, as well as “beaming” the first human voice and the first song from another planet back to Earth. One Discovery.com reporter even referred to it as “the Red Planet’s first public radio service.”
Sure, this geek considers these feats to be novel, but it’s the combination of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) that goes into this mission that is so impressive. Also inspiring to this geek is that this multinational mission bred cooperation, collaboration, and camaraderie among nations and between government and industry.