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Out of Curiosity: Toy stores missing NASA Mars Science Laboratory rover

A Mars Science Laboratory scientist demonstrates the operation of the Curiosity rover using a NASA model. (NASA/Kim Shiflett)
November 25, 2011

— In the days leading to the launch of NASA's new Mars rover, the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), space agency officials have used a scale model of the car-size rover to show how the six-wheeled spacecraft works. And near the launch site at the visitor center where the public will gather on Saturday (Nov. 26) to watch the liftoff, a toy model of the rover is on display.

But those hoping to go home with their own miniature MSL rover as a memento or as a means to engage their kids in the mission are out of luck.

If there ever was a NASA rover that has lent itself more to being a toy — but is not one — it is NASA's MSL, named "Curiosity."

Just imagine the commercial. Cue the voiceover:

Kids! Do you dream of exploring the surface of Mars? Do you like rockets? Lasers? Big wheels? Then do we have the toy for you! Introducing Curiosity, the ultimate Martian hot rod! Rocker-bogie six-wheel drive! Laser-shooting eye! Rocket-powered sky crane! You heard right, sky crane!

A model of the Curiosity, NASA's most advanced mobile robotic laboratory, is seen prior to a news briefing. (NASA/Paul Alers)

Of course, no ad is complete without the fine print:

Requires (1) radioactive battery (MMRTG, or multi-mission radioisotope thermoelectric generator), not included.

Not available in any store.

Previous NASA rovers have all been celebrated in toy and model form well before they touched down on the Martian surface, if not also before they left the Earth. The space agency's 1997 Pathfinder mission with its Sojourner rover had its very own Mattel Hot Wheels "Action Pack." Spirit and Opportunity, the twin Mars Exploration Rovers that landed in 2004, were sold as LEGO sets and modeled as die-cast and plastic miniatures.

MSL will take approximately eight months to reach Mars — Curiosity is scheduled to make a soft touchdown using cables lowering it from a rocket-powered descent stage (the aforementioned sky crane) on Aug. 6, 2012 — which means there's still time for models to land in stores before the real rover reaches the red planet. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which manages the mission for NASA, says they are unaware however, of any planned toys.

Curiosity meets CUUSOO

LEGO NXT robots, built to look like Curiosity, on display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. (NASA/Kim Shiflett)

LEGO, the Denmark-based toy company, assembled MSL models from its Mindstorms NXT robotics kits for a "Build the Future" display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida. The custom replicas and MSL launch event are part of an educational collaboration with NASA aimed at inspiring students to consider careers in science and engineering.

According to a LEGO spokesperson, the company has no plans to offer the block-built rovers as a commercial set.

Of course, that doesn't stop someone from building their own MSL from LEGO bricks — especially if that someone helped build the real Curiosity, too.

Stephen Pakbaz, an engineer who was involved in some of the design and testing of the actual MSL spacecraft at JPL, did just that — recreating the rover in 1:20 scale.

He said the experience working on the real rover "made it easier to make an accurate LEGO model."

Mechanical engineer Stephen Pakbaz's LEGO model of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity. (Stephen Pakbaz)

Pakbaz's brick-built Curiosity features an articulated arm, deployable mast, and a working rocker-bogie suspension system that allows the rover to keep all six wheels on the ground and climb over rocks twice their height.

In addition to publishing online photos and even a video of his mini MSL traversing a test ramp (which he also made from LEGO), Pakbaz submitted his model to CUUSOO, a website where the public can vote for fan-created LEGO sets. If 10,000 or more people cast their support behind a particular model, LEGO says it will consider producing it as a commercial model.

Out(reach) of Curiosity

Pakbaz said in an e-mail interview with collectSPACE that he built his LEGO Curiosity because he is a "big fan of space exploration" and of the related outreach efforts that NASA and LEGO have done.

"I thought this would be an effective way to contribute," he said.

The toy enables him to show one of his favorite features of the rover — the way it can move.

"As a mechanical engineer, I also loved demonstrating the rocker-bogie mobility system on the model, which allows the rover to negotiate the rough Martian terrain," he said.

Stephen Pakbaz's LEGO model features the same 'rocker-bogie' wheel action that the Curiosity rover employs. (Stephen Pakbaz)

For now, those who want to do similar demonstrations will need to do as Pakbaz did and build their own Curiosity. Or they need to vote for Pakbaz's model on LEGO CUUSOO and hope enough do the same that it's chosen for release.

The real Curiosity is targeted to launch at 10:02 a.m. EST (1502 GMT) Nov. 26 from Launch Complex (LC) 41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Once on the surface of Mars, MSL will use the most advanced payload of scientific gear ever sent to the red planet to investigate whether conditions have been favorable for microbial life and for preserving clues in the rocks about possible past life.

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