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Plutonium powered robot car! With a laser gun! That's (kind of) what's hurtling through space right now as part of NASA Mars Science Laboratory heads for the Red Planet. Hank walks you through this historic mission, with the help of some kick ass animations (thanks NASA!).

Mars Science Laboratory

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Hank Green: Fellow space nerds, we need to have a talk. [SciShow intro] I know that you're bummed that the 30-year-old Space Shuttle program ended last year, and now we depend on an even older Russian rocket to get our astronauts to the International Space Station. You're bummed that NASA's budget continues to shrink. And you're bummed that the last manned space flight beyond low Earth orbit happened over 40 years ago. But, hopefully you're aware that there are still really exciting things going on out there. And one of those really exciting things is the Mars Science Laboratory, or the MSL, which contains a rover that's roughly the size of a car. I brought today exhibit A in the proof that I'm a real Mars nerd. This is my custom-covered first edition of Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars, the first book in the Mars trilogy. I don't even want to tell you how much this cost me, but it's so worth it. I've never actually read this copy, but I've read my paperback four or five times. So I was understandably pretty frickin' excited when the rocket carrying this marvelous payload lifted off, beginning its nine month journey to the Red Planet. As I speak, the MSL is roughly 100 million miles into its 350 million mile one-way trip, and will reach its destination on August 6th. NASA has a pretty good track record when it comes to getting rovers to the surface of Mars. You may in fact remember July 4th, 1997, when that fantastic mission Pathfinder landed with it's robotic rover, Sojourner. I was, at that moment, a junior in high school, and working my butt off on "Hank Green's Mars Exploration Page", which is no longer on the internet, I'm sad to say. And back in 2004, what could probably be called the greatest overachievers in the history of NASA, Spirit and Opportunity, landed on the Red Planet. They landed on opposite sides of the planet, and were each supposed to explore for about 90 days. Opportunity is still roving eight years later. And now we have heading to Mars Curiosity, which, if Opportunity was a GoBot, Curiosity is pretty much Optimus Prime. It's twice as long, five times as heavy as the rovers we sent last decade, making for what's basically a portable laboratory on the surface of Mars -- and a nuclear powered one. That's right, with some of the instruments needing to all be powered at once, and it being a very large vehicle that needs to move itself around, it needed a power source a little more substantial than the Sun. And that power source is a radioisotope thermoelectric generator that's powered by about ten pounds of plutonium. There are a ton of really cool experiments planned for what NASA hopes is Curiosity's 686 day mission, including, of course, lots of experiments that are designed to figure out whether the surface of Mars was ever favorable for microbial life. Also on board: an x-ray diffraction instrument that's designed to be able to tell whatever all the little dust things that it collects are actually made of. Ah, and I also should mention that it has a laser gun. I kid you not, this tiny laser-firing instrument has the ability to vaporize rocks from 23 ft away. And when I say vaporize whole rocks, I don't mean that. I mean that it heats up the rocks enough that it produces a little bit of ionized gas from the rock, and that ionized gas can then be analyzed to figure out what the rock is made of. It's going to look like this. We're not gonna get to see it as it's actually happening, but thank you to NASA for this amazing depiction. The laser gun is part of one instrument on the rover known as the ChemCam which will use the laser pulse to identify chemical elements with a telescope and spectrometer. So stay tuned for August 6th because I guarantee you we're going to be talking about the Curiosity as it lands on the surface of the Red Planet. This landing, by the way, is a pretty incredible and kind of scary process in itself. I'm a little bit nervous about it. The Mars Science Laboratory is too big for the traditional parachutes and then surrounded with inflated air bags so that it bounces across the surface of Mars. So the MSL will actually be lowered via a tether using an elaborate powered descent and sky crane system. August 6th, people! Cross your fingers for that one. Thank you for watching this episode of SciShow. It's always very interesting here. You should probably, uh, subscribe if you haven't done that because it's just good stuff, if I say so myself. There is, of course, more information on the Mars Science Laboratory in the links in the description. If you have questions or ideas for us, you can connect with us on Facebook and Twitter, and we'll also be down in the YouTube comments below. Now, if you will excuse me, I'm going to go read Red Mars again.