The next Mars science rover is taking shape at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Curiosity, technically known as the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), was named by Clara Ma, who said:
I selected the name Curiosity and I chose that name because I was really curious about space and our planets and our solar system and I wanted to learn more about it.
The Mars Science Laboratory is scheduled to launch between 25 November and 18 December 2011 aboard an Atlas V 541 and land on the Red Planet in August of 2012. Today, 23 July 2010, Curiosity took its first drive, and the video can be seen here.
Curiosity, unlike the current Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity (operating on solar panels), will carry a radioisotope power system that generates electricity from the heat of plutonium’s radioactive decay. This will give Curiosity the ability to move without consideration of the time of year (winter on Mars means limited solar power). It will enhance the science payload and allow for the exploration of a much larger range of latitudes and altitudes.
Since the two previous Mars rovers (Spirit and Opportunity) have been so successful (operating for more than ten times the 90 day warranty), three of the key elements of the MSL mission are technological:
Demonstrate the ability to land a very large, heavy rover to the surface of Mars (which could be used for a future Mars Sample Return mission that would collect rocks and soils and send them back to Earth for laboratory analysis)
Demonstrate the ability to land more precisely in a 20-kilometer (12.4-mile) landing circle
Demonstrate long-range mobility on the surface of the red planet (5-20 kilometers or about 3 to 12 miles) for the collection of more diverse samples and studies.
These are elements that will become increasingly important as we approach sending manned missions the Phobos, and later to Mars itself.