The tech behind Curiosity

NASA’s Mars rover has been in the headlines since it touched down on the Red Planet on 6 August 2012, and the technological feat has proven to capture the attention of the world.

But exactly what tech has made the expedition possible, and what powers the rover across the surface of Mars?

Neck and head

The neck and head (known as the “mast”) features seven of Curiosity’s seventeen cameras.

The mast cameras can be raised to provide a large viewing area and to survey the land, ensuring that the rover isn’t sent on journeys over large distances to ultimately discover nothing of interest.

The MastCam can take images up to 1600 x 1200 pixels, and 10 frames per second video at 720p.

The MastCam is the primary camera of observation; however there is a ChemCam (Chemistry and Camera complex) to monitor micro-imaging and infrared.

Two pairs of Navcams (Navigation cameras) help capture stereoscopic 3-D imagery and guide the rover cross the terrain.

Each camera has 8GB of flash memory on-board.

Curiosity’s mast cameras

The rover

As for the rover itself, the 900kg machine is essentially a moving laboratory.

Curiosity is powered by a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (built by Boeing and the Idaho National Laboratory), which is fuelled by radioactive decay being converted into electricity.

A heat rejection system (HRS) keeps the rover at optimum temperature by warming and cooling integral components when necessary.

In terms of mobility, Curiosity is equipped with six 50 centimetre diameter wheels.

Each wheel is independently geared, making traversal over soft sand and rocks manageable.

Curiosity can travel up to speeds of 90 meters per hour (0.09km/h), but average speed is around 0.03km/h.



Curiosity features two identical on-board computers called Rover Compute Element (RCE).

The computers are radiation-hardened, allowing them to survive the extreme radiation from space.

Each computer’s memory includes 256kB of EEPROM, 256MB of DRAM, and 2GB of flash memory.


An X band transmitter and receiver and a UHF Electra-Lite software-defined radio are used to communicate with Mars orbiters.

Curiosity can communicate with Earth directly at speeds up to 32kbit/s, but the transferred data will go through the orbiters at 2Mbit/s and 256kbit/s on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Odyssey orbiter respectively.


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The tech behind Curiosity