July 12

Look out, Mars.  Here comes one bad-ass dune buggy.  If all goes as planned, the Mars Sciences Laboratory (MSL) — nicknamed “Curiosity” — will blast off to Mars early this winter.  It’s about the size of a Mini Cooper — five times larger than the previous rovers Spirit and Opportunity — and can travel faster, farther, and over rougher terrain than its Mars-vehicle cousins.

Curiosity is an audacious technical marvel in search of past or present life on Mars.  It uses a state-of-the-art radioactive power system to generate electricity and heat.  It’s jam-packed with a multi-million-dollar laboratory of scientific instruments.  And its ingenious landing system is right out of a science-fiction novel:  A “sky crane” will literally lower Curiosity from an above-flying descent stage to the Martian surface.

The launch window is November 25th through December 18th.  Pencil in August 2012 for a wild ride down to the Martian surface.

Rendering courtesy NASA / JPL-Caltech