Enormous robot to land on Mars, take pictures with a laser

A simulated Mars Rover makes tracks through red soil at Walt Disney World Resort. The Curiosity is the latest Mars rover and it's set to land on the red planet on Sunday.

Great big robot is going to land on Mars this weekend. Got laser cameras and everything.

I'm sorry, I know, it's public radio and I should have some highly intellectual or even poetic intro here instead.

But come on. Big huge Mars robot with lasers.

The Curiosity is the latest Mars rover and it's set to land on the red planet on Sunday. It's the heaviest rover ever, 2,000 pounds. And Roger Wiens of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory says it's big enough to hold plenty of equipment. "We have a ChemCam which is the instrument that I'm in charge of. It fires a laser out at samples or either rocks or soils on the surface and with that laser beam it can determine the chemical composition of small spots of samples, and then we take some pictures. Then there are some instruments on the arm. That arm can actually drop samples into two other instruments that sit inside the rover. One does mineralogy, the other does a complicated chemistry of the samples including organic materials if they exist."

There's also a weather station and instruments to monitor radiation and hydrogen.

Besides being bigger than previous rovers, Curiosity is a big step forward in technology, says Wiens. "The cameras are using two-color cameras like you have in your own camera. They're the highest resolution images that we've seen from Mars yet. The laser will pump the energy of a million lightbulbs into the spot the size of the pin for five billionths of a second, and that's how our instrument works, to determine compositions. It produces a flash on the surface of Mars."

Wiens is part of a large team of engineers that will operate the rover from Pasadena, Calif. That's on Earth. Each person operating a different component. The rover also travels around on its own. Traffic isn't much of a concern.

Wiens: The rover operates autonomously for basically for its daytime. We get the data back at the end of the day on Mars, and then we start deciphering that and then planning the operations for the next day.

Moe: What does it feel like to know that in a couple of days, you are going to be able to operate a laser camera on a vehicle driving around Mars? What does that feel like for you?

Wiens: It hasn't hit me yet.

You can watch the rover land on Mars this Sunday night. That'll happen at 10:30 pacific, 1:30 a.m. Eastern. It'll be lowered down on ropes from a hovering retrorocket vehicle. Then the ropes will be cut and rover's ready to go.

Many museums are holding viewing parties, Times Square in New York is showing it live. You can also go to Nasa.gov.

**

You often hear us present Tech Report Theater.

Today, we take you to an alternative production. Video producer Joe Plummer has posted videos of professional actors acting restaurant reviews from Yelp.com, as dramatic monologues.

Here's Therese Plummer in the role of Indian food reviewer. She speaks to the chef.

Therese Plummer: You go, sir. The Tandoori prawns were cooked perfectly, seasoned to perfection, and tore through me with the awesome fury of the horsemen of the apocalypse.

Yummy.

Here, actor Chris Kipiniak relates the experience of complimenting a restaurant manager on the quality of the food but the manager isn't even nice about the compliment.

Chris Kipiniak: I don't think I'm going to eat there anymore. Because if the manager isn't nice then what does that say about the business you're running and the people in it?

Over the top? A bit. But it does capture the melodramatic tone of people who go on Yelp to review the food they ate.

About the author

John Moe is the host of Marketplace Tech Report, where he provides an insightful overview of the latest tech news.

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