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Why is NASA's latest Mars Rover biggest and best yet? (+video)

NASA's Mars Curiosity Rover, expected to land on the Red planet in three weeks, is NASA's most advanced robotic mission yet.

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Like its two predecessors, Curiosity will be equipped with six wheels with individual driver motors and a suspension system to help it drive up inclines and combat the difficult Martian terrain. But Curiosity will also be able to move faster, with 3.35 miles per hour (5.39 kilometers per hour) being its top speed on flat, hard ground. For comparison, Opportunity's maximum speed is approximately 0.1 miles per hour.

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"Mars Science Lab [is the] most challenging mission we've ever sent to another planet, and certainly the most challenging we've sent to Mars," McCuistion said. "It truly is a major step forward both in technology and in potential science return and science capability, to unlock the mysteries of Mars in places that have never been accessible to humankind in the past." [7 Biggest Mysteries of Mars]

A new suite of instruments

Curiosity is designed to perform detailed analyses of Martian rocks and soil, including what lies beneath the surface. The rover is equipped with 10 different instruments that have a collective mass of 165 pounds (75 kilograms). Spirit and Opportunity each carried five instruments, totaling 11 pounds (5 kg).

Curiosity will be able to dig, snap high-definition pictures of Mars, analyze chemical properties of soil and rock samples, study minerals, and even blast rocks with a laser to measure their chemical compositions.

As one of the key indicators of potential habitability, Curiosity will investigate the presence of water around Gale Crater.

"Over the last decade-and-a-half of exploration, we have found more water than expected," said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA's Mars Program at NASA headquarters. "With the landing of Curiosity, the adventure begins as we explore the past and present of Gale Crater."

As NASA prepares for Curiosity's nail-biting trip through the atmosphere of Mars, mission managers anticipate the huge rover will herald a new age of exploration on the Red Planet and beyond.

"The Mars Exploration Program was designed to create steady progress in both technology and scientific capabilities at other planets," McCuistion said. "NASA was created to take on big challenges, and that's what this one is. MSL is forging ahead in greater and greater ways for science and for technology. Robert Kennedy said, 'Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.' MSL is poised to do great things."

Follow Denise Chow on Twitter @denisechow or SPACE.com @SpacedotcomWe're also on Facebook and Google+.

Copyright 2012 SPACE.com, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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