The Curiosity rover is the biggest and most tricked-out tool ever to ship out of our atmosphere. It comes equipped with six wheels and one jackhammer-tipped arm, which also wields cameras and a laser probe. NASA will use the robot to measure radiation levels, record weather conditions, and examine rocks. Curiosity's HD cameras will also allow it to take photos with a level of detail and quality never before seen from another planet. It'll be sending back high resolution shots of a landscape that's only been captured in grainy takes so far.
The probe will be digging around the Gale Crater--the most likely spot for life on the planet. Scientists believe that no other location on Mars is richer in minerals. They expect the investigation of the area to reveal a good deal about Mars's history and potentially the microbes that once lived there.
Because Curiosity is so much bigger than any previous Mars rover--about the size of an earthbound vehicle--scientists had to come up with a way to ensure its safe landing on the red planet. Smaller robots had used air bags to cushion their landings, but Curiosity is too heavy for that strategy to work. Project members developed a jet pack and tether system that would allow Curiosity to slowly lower itself down onto Mars's surface.
Curiosity took off from the pale blue dot earlier today. It's got about 354 million miles left in its journey--a distance estimated to take eight and a half months. If all goes according to plan, Curiosity will be roaming around the Martian landscape by the end of next summer. Getting out of Earth's orbit isn't easy, though, and plenty of probes have gotten lost in the journey to Mars. In fact, the US is the only nation that has successfully landed anything on our neighbor world. But Curiosity is the most advanced probe yet, and therefore the most likely to make it.
Check out the awesome computer-generated video of Curiosity's intended trajectory and landing below.