With its launch window opening in less than two months, the Mars Science Laboratory was matched up with its heat shield at Kennedy Space Center's Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility on Wednesday, Oct. 5.
The completed MSL rover, a.k.a. "Curiosity," had already been fitted onto the "back shell powered descent vehicle" - a revolutionary landing mechanism that will first deploy parachutes to slow the capsule's descent and then use rockets to hover above the Martian surface as it carefully lowers the one-ton rover down on cables before finally launching itself away to fall at a safe distance.
Curiosity can be seen in the photo above neatly tucked into the back shell. (Click here for another view.)
The heat shield, the gold-colored plate near the bottom, will protect the rover and the back shell from the intense heat that will be generated by the spacecraft's final descent through the Martian atmosphere.
Even though Mars' atmosphere is only one percent as dense as Earth's it will still generate friction - and thus heat - as the MSL flight stage enters and slows down.
For an idea of how the landing sequence will unfold check out the animation below:
After launching from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in late November or early December of this year, Curiosity will arrive at Gale Crater in Aug 2012 where it will make its way toward a central mountain. It will use its advanced suite of science instruments to search the exposed sedimentary layers for the presence of organic compounds - and possibly even evidence of ancient microbial life.
Curiosity's main mission is slated to last 23 months, or one Martian year. It remains to be seen if this rover will exceed expectations like its predecessors Spirit and Opportunity, which each operated years past their original mission timelines.
If Curiosity is anything like its older siblings I'm sure we can expect a lot more years of amazing discoveries from Mars!
For more information and updates about Curiosity visit the Mars Science Laboratory site here.
Image credit: NASA