Twice as long and three times as heavy as the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity, the Mars Science Laboratory was to collect Martian soil and rock samples and analyze them for organic compounds and environmental conditions that could have supported microbial life now or in the past. The mission was anticipated to have a truly international flavor, with a neutron-based hydrogen detector for locating water provided by the Russian Federal Space Agency, a meteorological package provided by the Spanish Ministry of Education and Science, and a spectrometer provided by the Canadian Space Agency.
Mars Science Laboratory was intended to be the first planetary mission to use precision landing techniques, steering itself toward the Martian surface similar to the way the space shuttle controls its entry through the Earth's upper atmosphere. In this way, the spacecraft would fly to a desired location above the surface of Mars before deploying its parachute for the final landing. In the final minutes before touchdown, the spacecraft would activate its parachute and retro rockets before lowering the rover package to the surface on a tether (similar to the way a skycrane helicopter moves a large object). This landing method would enable the rover to land in an area 20 to 40 kilometers long, about the size of a small crater or wide canyon and three to five times smaller than previous landing zones on Mars.
Mars Science Laboratory would have six wheels and cameras mounted on a mast. It was to carry a laser for vaporizing a thin layer from the surface of a rock and analyzing the elemental composition of the underlying materials. It would be able to collect rock and soil samples and distribute them to on-board test chambers for chemical analysis. Its design included a suite of scientific instruments for identifying organic compounds such as proteins, amino acids, and other acids and bases that attach themselves to carbon backbones and were essential to life. It could also identify features such as atmospheric gases associated with biological activity.
Using these tools, Mars Science Laboratory was to examine Martian rocks and soils in greater detail than ever before to determine the geologic processes that formed them; study the martian atmosphere; and determine the distribution and circulation of water and carbon dioxide, whether frozen, liquid, or gaseous.
NASA was to select a landing site on the basis of highly detailed images sent to Earth by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, in addition to data from earlier missions. The rover would carry a radioisotope power system that generated electricity from the heat of plutonium's radioactive decay. This power source would give the mission an operating lifespan on Mars' surface of a full martian year (687 Earth days) or more while also providing significantly greater mobility and operational flexibility, enhanced science payload capability, and exploration of a much larger range of latitudes and altitudes than was possible on previous missions to Mars.
AKA: Mars Science Laboratory.