The Mars Science Lab was launched a week ago, and is scheduled to land in the Gale Crater of Mars during August of next year. The object is to place a one-ton vehicle, or rover, called “Curiosity” on the surface to move about for about 690 days. Its average speed will be about 30 meters per hour. Among its other tasks, Curiosity will try to answer the long-standing but unresolved question about whether Mars harbors life.
The Wikipedia page gives a ton of useful information, and this cool 5.5 minute animation shows how Curiosity will land and deploy:
The landing is an extremely complicated multi-step process. Check out the rock sampler at 4:13. I’m not sure which of the many experiments envisioned is shown at the end; perhaps an informed reader will tell us.
Isn’t it amazing what our species has been able to do? Everything involved in this mission to Mars was crafted from the substance and atmosphere of Earth, transformed through the mentation of a big-brained primate.
Professor Martin Brasier—a well-known paleobiologist at Oxford—and his son Alex were invited to the launch and took these two photos, which I reproduce with their permission: