NASA builds Mini-sized Mars rover

If you thought the average family hatchback was expensive to design and build you wouldn't believe the lengths that NASA is prepared to go to with its new Mars rover.

The Mini Cooper-sized Mars Science Laboratory dwarfs the previous rovers dispatched to the red planet in both scale and expense. The estimated cost for the programme is currently hovering around the $2.4bn mark.

However, put that kind of money into the NASA boffins' ultra-clean hands and you end up with quite a machine.
At the heart of the new Mars rover is a radioisotope thermoelectric generator – essentially a nuclear battery that converts heat into energy – which will power all the vehicle's systems for at least one full Martian year (687 days on Earth).

The rover is expected to cover quite a bit of ground in that time so NASA has opted for a six-wheel drive system. Each wheel gets an individual motor, which are designed to operate at very low voltage levels to conserve power, but must still be capable of generating the high torque levels necessary for moving the 900kg rover around Mars's rocky terrain.

With a sophisticated suspension system, the vehicle is capable of traversing small boulders and can withstand a 45-degree tilting angle. Unsurprisingly, NASA takes a safety first approach to its off-roader; top speed on flat ground is just 4cm per second.

While it might be slightly pedestrian, there's certainly nothing dull about the way the rover arrives on Mars. Rather than simply parachuting the vehicle down, NASA's engineers designed a new system known as the sky crane.

Check out the video below to see how it works, but even the guys responsible for the thing described it to the BBC as a rocket-powered helicopter. If freeze-dried food and memory foam are legacies of previous NASA missions can we take nuclear-powered cars and rocket-powered helicopters from this one, please?

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