• The First Color Image of Mars

We love vehicles that have two and four wheels, so why shouldn’t we love those that have six wheels? No, we’re not talking about the latest Ford F-350 Dually. We are talking about the technological marvel that has been on the tip of everyone’s tongue lately: the Mars Science Laboratory, which is better known simply as the Curiosity Rover.

Recently, we showed you an infographic that pitted the 2013 Ford F-150 SVT Raptor against the Curiosity Rover, and that was obviously done in jest. See, the Curiosity Rover is set to go where no F-150 could ever go... the red planet – Mars to those that are not also Sci-Fi nerds.

With the Curiosity’s touchdown coming in just a few days, we thought it was time to give it the TopSpeed once over to see if it is really ready to embark on this 253-day journey, which is quite a commute...

UPDATE 08/07/2012: The Curiosity Rover has touched down on Mars and has officially taken its first color picture of the surface of the Red Planet. The picture was taken with the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) at the end of the rover’s robotic arm. Check out the image, as well as many others, in the gallery provided!

Click past the jump to read our full review on the Curiosity Rover.


2012 Curiosity Rover Exterior
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The Curiosity Rover is about 129 inches long (which is just about 1-1/2 feet shorter than a Mini Cooper), 109 inches wide, and 87 inches tall. It boasts six wheels on legs that pivot up and down in accordance with the terrain it is on.

The Rover isn’t going to Mars empty handed, it will carry with it a plethora of attachments. It comes with a pair of on-board computers that feature 256 KB of EEPROM, 256 MB of DRAM, and 2 GB of flash memory. The computers use a RAD750 CPU which is capable of 400 million instructions per second.

Affixed to a large mast atop the Rover is a high-quality camera capable of taking pictures with a resolution value of 1,600 x 1,200 pixels. It can also take video at 10 frames per second in 720p high-definition. With 8 GB of flash memory in the camera, it can store up to 5,500 martian images.

2012 Curiosity Rover Exterior
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Also a part of the Rover is a Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), which is a camera on an arm that is used to take microscopic images of rocks and soil with a 1,600 x 1,200-pixel resolution. The MAHLI camera can either store the images on its memory or compress the files without losing quality and send them back to Earth.

The Mars Descent Imager (MARDI) is another camera that is designed to take images as the Curiosity Rover descends to Mars’ ground. It also produces 1,600 x 1,200-pixel images, but it takes pictures from the 3.7 km range to 5 meters from the planet’s surface. It also has an 8 GB capacity, which allows for 4,000 images to be stored.

2012 Curiosity Rover Exterior
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Also on-board the Curiosity Rover, and also way over our heads as to what they actually do, are the ChemCam, Alpha-particle X-ray spectrometer, CheMin, Sample analysis at Mars, Radiation assessment detector, Dynamic albedo of neutrons, Rover environmental monitoring station, MSL entry descent and landing instrumentation, Hazard avoidance cameras, and Navigation cameras. The latter two are explained as cameras to help the Rover navigate Mars’ terrain.

Sticking the Landing

2012 Curiosity Rover
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The Curiosity Rover needs to stick a perfect landing for any exploration to be possible. NASA scientists have come up with a system that should work flawlessly. Once the Rover’s capsule has breached Mars’ atmosphere and has slowed to Mach II, a supersonic parachute opens up and the heat shield falls off of the capsule, exposing the MARDI for picture taking.

Once the capsule is about 1.1 miles from the Martian surface and the capsule is traveling about 220 mph, the parachute breaks free and the powered descent begins. In this stage, eight thrusters extend from the capsule and create enough thrust to slow down the capsule. Once the Rover is just 25 feet from the martian surface, the sky crane phase begins.

2012 Curiosity Rover
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The sky crane uses a 25-foot-long cord and cables to lower the Rover to the ground. Once the crane verifies the Rover is on solid ground, it cuts away and flies off to crash land in a spot 500 to 1,000 feet away.

At this point, the rover is set to rock and roll... literally.

On The Ground

2012 Curiosity Rover Exterior
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Once the Curiosity Rover is on the ground, it relies on a Nuclear motor to keep its six wheels turning. This motor throws 500 pound-feet of torque to each wheel, giving it tons of power to get where it needs to be. This motor runs off of plutonium dioxide and has a total driving range of 20 km/12.4 miles, so it definitely isn’t going too far.


There have been past Mars explorations before, but none were as advanced as the Curiosity Rover, so there is no competition to speak of.


We are all extremely excited to see the Curiosity Rover touch down and give us some idea of what’s going on in the red planet. As with every space mission, there are no guarantees that this $2.5 billion project will succeed or not. We’ll be watching with baited breath along with the rest of the world.

  • Leave it
    • Only a 20 km range
    • Gulps a lot of plutonium per mile
    • $2.5 billion, really??
Justin Cupler
Justin Cupler
About the author

Press Release

Using LIBS for classification of carbonate minerals on Mars

2012 Curiosity Rover Exterior
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LIBS is a powerful technique for determining the elemental composition of samples. Alaser is
focused onto a sample (solid, liquid or gas) to create a plasma. Emissions from the plasma
are then collected and analyzed spectroscopically and the atomic spectral lines are used to determine elemental composition. Multivariate analysis is applied to the LIBS data to classify samples based on their compositional differences.

This work is being done to enable measurement by LIBS of samples of materials on the surface of Mars to determine if water is or has been present on Mars.

Materials and Methods

2012 Curiosity Rover Exterior
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- * The ChemCam is an instrument designed to be mounted on the MSL rover mast, and is comprised of a LIBS instrument and a remote micro imager (RMI). A LIBS data base of several carbonate materials is being developed in the laboratory with a system similar to the ChemCam LIBS. Samples include natural rocks collected from various locations, as well as some reference standard samples. The LIBS spectra of calcite (CaCO3),
dolomite (CaMg(CO3)2), siderite (FeCO3), and rhodochrosite (MnCO3), have been measured under martian atmospheric conditions ( 7 Torr Co2).

- * The region of the LIBS spectrum with the most elemental information of the samples was used in the analysis. The multivariate analysis tool of PCA is used which provides a map of samples and variables, helping to identify the variables that relate to the sample and their differences. By using PCA, a new coordinate system is computed (the principal components) which define the variance in the data. The data is reduced as there are typically fewer PCs needed to explain the variance in the data than there are variables in the data set. The PCA scores plot, a projection of samples plotted in the new coordinate system, gives a map of the samples. Similar samples lie closer together than dissimilar samples.

- * Analysis was done using The Unscrambler X ver 10.0.1

Results and discussion

2012 Curiosity Rover
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A PCA analysis of the LIBS Spectra over the range from 460-820 nm was run and samples can be seen to be separated into four groups in the scores plot. From this it can be seen that classification of different carbonate materials is possible based on their LIBS spectra. By adding more samples of the expected classes of materials that may be found on Mars, a model that can identify these materiels will be developed. Likewise regression models can be developed to measure the concentration of major elements in the samples. This will allow for rapid identification of unknown samples during the Mars Rover experiments in 2011.

Eyes and Other Senses

2012 Curiosity Rover Exterior
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The rover has seventeen "eyes." Six engineering cameras aid in rover navigation and four cameras perform science investigations.

Each camera has an application-specific set of optics:

Four Pairs of Engineering Hazard Avoidance Cameras (Hazcams):

Mounted on the lower portion of the front and rear of the rover, these black-and-white cameras will use visible light to capture three-dimensional (3-D) imagery. This imagery safeguards against the rover getting lost or inadvertently crashing into unexpected obstacles, and works in tandem with software that allows the rover make its own safety choices and to "think on its own."

The cameras each have a wide field of view of about 120 degrees. The rover uses pairs of Hazcam images to map out the shape of the terrain as far as 3 meters (10 feet) in front of it, in a "wedge" shape that is over 4 meters wide (13 feet) at the farthest distance. The cameras need to see far to either side because unlike human eyes, the Hazcam cameras cannot move independently; they are mounted directly to the rover body.

Two Pairs of Engineering Navigation Cameras (Navcams):

Mounted on the mast (the rover "neck and head"), these black-and-white cameras will use visible light to gather panoramic, three-dimensional (3D) imagery. The navigation camera unit is a stereo pair of cameras, each with a 45-degree field of view that will support ground navigation planning by scientists and engineers. They will work in cooperation with the hazard avoidance cameras by providing a complementary view of the terrain.
Four Science Cameras: MastCam (one pair), ChemCam, MAHLI:
Mast Camera will take color images, three-dimensional stereo images, and color video footage of the martian terrain and have a powerful zoom lens.

2012 Curiosity Rover Exterior
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Like the cameras on the Mars Exploration Rovers that landed on the red planet in 2004, the MastCam design consists of two duplicate camera systems mounted on a mast extending upward from the Mars Science Laboratory rover deck. The cameras function much like human eyes, producing three-dimensional stereo images by combining two side-by-side images taken from slightly different positions.

The Laser-Induced Remote Sensing for Chemistry and Micro-Imaging will fire a laser and analyze the elemental composition of vaporized materials from areas smaller than 1 millimeter on the surface of Martian rocks and soils. An on-board spectrograph will provide unprecedented detail about minerals and microstructures in rocks by measuring the composition of the resulting plasma - an extremely hot gas made of free-floating ions and electrons.

The Mars Hand Lens Imager is the equivalent of a geologist’s hand lens and will provide close-up views of the minerals, textures and structures in martian rocks and the surface layer of rocky debris and dust. With this new device, earthbound geologists will be able to see martian features smaller than the diameter of a human hair.

One Descent Imager—MARDI:

Engineers who worked on the Mars Exploration Rover mission were able to get an idea of what the approaching martian terrain "looked" like to Spirit and Opportunity via DIMES (Descent Image Motion Estimation System). This system was used to detect the spacecraft’s movement and adjust it - using retro rockets - if necessary. Mars Science Laboratory will feature an even more capable visual system. MARDI (Mars Descent Imager) will provide five frame-per-second video at a high resolution. The images will be "true color," or as the human eye would see.

In addition to stunning video, the data the camera collects will allow scientists and engineers to: observe geological processes at a variety of scales, sample the horizontal wind profile, create detailed geologic, geomorphic and traverse planning and relief maps of the landing site.

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Show Comments


  (727) posted on 08.17.2012

They have shown how it was perfectly landed on the surface of the Mars. The photo of the Mars landscape is really stunning.

  (472) posted on 08.16.2012

It’s epic pictures while landing is amazing. The red planet does exist and much better to our moon.

  (466) posted on 08.16.2012

I saw the pictures of the rover while trekking on the rocky surface of Mars. And its amazing to look at. It’s very unbelievable.

  (463) posted on 08.16.2012

It’s good to know that this Curiosity Rover will have its first run on the rocky and deserted surface of the Mars.

  (506) posted on 08.13.2012

What are the most recent updates regarding the Curiosity Rover? Where can I see the latest images captured by the rover while exploring the rugged surface of Mars?

  (596) posted on 08.13.2012

I’m also joyful that the Curiosity Rover successfully landed on the surface of the Red Planet. We can now investigate further about the real data and status of Mars.

  (159) posted on 08.9.2012

When will they launch it on space? I’m excited to see the real time surface details of the red planet.

  (763) posted on 08.6.2012

This will bring latest transformation on probing the other planets. This vehicle will fit perfectly on the rugged surface of Mars. I guess a lot of photos regarding the characteristics and texture of the planet.

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