The MSL is the most ambitious Mars project to date. Its rover, named Curiosity, is twice as long and five times as heavy as its predecessors, Spirit and Opportunity. Its 150-square-mile landing zone is a third of the size of that of previous missions, requiring unprecedented accuracy. And whereas the previous rovers traveled less than a mile during their three-month-long primary missions, Curiosity will drive up to 12 miles over the course of a full Martian year, which lasts 687 Earth-days.
The MSL’s objective is to determine if Mars has—or ever had—the conditions necessary to support life. And it will do so with the most advanced set of scientific tools included on any off-Earth expedition. The MSL is more than just a Mars mission, though. It is also a test of several newly developed devices and techniques that will drive NASA projects for decades to come, from expeditions to the Jovian ice moon Europa to manned missions to Mars.