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NASA's nuclear Mars tank arrives at launch site

'Curiosity' united with aeroshell, rocket lander

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NASA's new and improved, nuclear-powered, laser-toting Mars rover has arrived at Kennedy Space Centre in Florida to prepare for its launch towards the red planet this autumn.

The roughly SUV-sized vehicle, formerly known as the Mars Science Laboratory but now officially dubbed "Curiosity", arrived aboard a massive US air force C-17 cargo plane from California where it was manufactured. Along with the machine came the retro-rocket lander craft which will deliver it to the Martian surface by means of cunning lowering tackles, as seen in this rather groovy NASA concept vid.

The aeroshell - the round space tin in which rover and lander will arrive in the skies of Mars - and the cruise stage rocket which will carry aeroshell and contents on their interplanetary journey are already at Kennedy. The mission is slated to lift off from Cape Canaveral atop an Atlas V launcher at the end of November or beginning of December.

"The design and building part of the mission is nearly behind us now," said NASA's David Gruel, who has been managing Curiosity's manufacture since 2007. "We're getting to final checkouts before sending the rover on its way to Mars."

Five times the weight of any previous Martian rover, Curiosity is expected to be much more mobile than the Spirit and Opportunity machines which preceded it. Being solar powered, the two older vehicles can move only at a crawl in the relatively weak sunshine of far-out Mars and must hibernate when winter sets in. (Despite their tremendous longevity, neither has managed to roll as far as the Soviet moon rovers of the 1970s did.)

On the down side, Curiosity's radio-isotope powerplant will run down after a while. The mission is expected to run for a full Martian year (approximately two Earth ones), but it will never manage to keep on going for many times its planned life as Spirit did and Opportunity still is doing. ®

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