NASA shows off next Mars rover

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Courtesy of NASA

Engineers finish installing six new wheels on the Curiosity rover, and rotate all six wheels at once on July 9, 2010, at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena satisfied some folks’ curiosity on Thursday by showing off the next rover it plans to send to the planet Mars. It’s called the Mars Science Laboratory, or “Curiosity,” and it’s about the size of a Mini Cooper, with six wheels instead of four.

"The biggest, baddest thing we’ve ever tried to send to Mars."

That's how JPL’s Brett Kennedy describes Curiosity. It is twice as long and four times as heavy as its predecessors, Spirit and Opportunity. Kennedy is overseeing the design of Curiosity’s robotic arm.

"With that arm, we’re able to take new tools, in particular a drill that’s able to take samples out of inside of rocks and look for things in that sample with a bunch of new instruments, some of which are roughly the equivalent of the instruments you’d find in laboratories on Earth," says Kennedy. "So we’re really able to do this in-situ science in a comprehensive way up there on the surface of planet."

The rock samples are the size of an aspirin tablet, says Kennedy, and the arm must drop them into something roughly the size of a big thimble.

"So we have to be strong-armed and then dainty to get that done," Kennedy explains. He likes to say the arm is strong enough to lift a fifth-grader. NASA plans to lift Curiosity toward Mars late next year from Cape Canaveral.

The Mars mission is expected to last a year, which equals two years on Earth.

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