The car-size Curiosity rover blasted off atop its Atlas 5 rocket at 10:02 a.m. ET Saturday Curiosity is a beast of a rover. Weighing in at 1 ton, it’s five times more massive than either of the last two rovers NASA sent to Mars, the golf-cart-size twins Spirit and Opportunity, which landed in 2004 to search for signs of past water activity.
Curiosity has 10 scientific instruments, including a rock-zapping laser and equipment designed to identify organic compounds — carbon-based molecules that are the building blocks of life as we know it. Some of these instruments sit at the end of Curiosity’s five-jointed, 7-foot-long (2.1-meter) robotic arm, which by itself is nearly half as heavy as Spirit or Opportunity. The arm also wields a 2-inch (5-centimeter) drill, allowing Curiosity to take samples from deep inside Martian rocks.
Curiosity isn’t designed to search for Martian life. In fact, if the red dirt of Gale Crater does harbor microbes, the rover will almost certainly drive right over them unawares. But MSL is a key bridge to future efforts that could actively hunt down possible Martian life forms, researchers said. Curiosity’s work should help later missions determine where — and when — to look.