The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), scheduled for launch in 2011, will be NASA's third generation of rover to explore the red planet. Like its predecessors, it will have a six-wheel rocker-bogie mobility system, and like the MER Opportunity and Spirit rovers, it will have a mast with pointable remote-sensing science instruments and an arm capable of placing science instruments in contact with the Martian surface.
The MSL rover, however, will also have a corer capable of acquiring samples from the interiors of rocks, and a scoop for acquiring regolith samples. These samples will be crushed into fines for delivery to onboard science-laboratory instruments capable of making new classes of measurements for Mars, including the determination of mineralogy, isotopic abundance, and the presence of organic compounds.
The rover will also host instruments for observing weather, determining the presence of subsurface water, and measuring the flux of radiation from space impinging on the surface. Information from these measurements have both science value and use for planning future human exploration of Mars.
To host this suite of science instruments, which is ten times heavier than that of the MER rovers, a larger vehicle is required. The MSL rover, shown in Figure 1, is designed to be two meters tall with a footprint 2.5 meters square.
In addition to the increased science-measurement capability, MSL will be able to access more of Mars. The rover is being designed to traverse 20 kilometers over the course of its prime mission of one Martian year (two Earth years). The entry, descent, and landing (EDL) system and rover are being designed to support a wider latitude range, from 60 degrees North to 60 degrees South, and safe landing at higher altitudes -- up to two kilometers above the Martian geoid. The EDL system is also unique in the way it will deliver the rover to the surface. Unlike previous rovers which drove off landed platforms, the MSL descent stage will lower the rover on cables, placing it directly onto the surface, as shown in Figure 2.