"Mars fans vote to immortalise Curiosity rover in Lego"
June 18th, 2013
NASA's Mars Curiosity rover may already have discovered the first definitive evidence that the Red Planet was once suited to life – but only now has the interplanetary monster truck gained the space fan's ultimate credential: immortalisation in Lego.
It's the latest in a long line of Lego space kits, but this one is special because it was demanded by thousands and designed by an engineer who worked on the real Curiosity.
"I combined this first-hand experience with my Lego hobby to create a Lego model that was as faithful to the actual rover as possible in terms of accuracy, details and mechanical function," says designer Stephen Pakbaz, a mechanical engineer who worked on Curiosity at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The model has a working suspension system, an articulated arm and a poseable mast for recreating your favourite events in Curiosity's ongoing mission.
The Curiosity toy is the fifth design to be approved for release via Lego's Cuusoo programme, which lets enthusiasts submit their own designs to the Danish-based toy company for others to vote on. Any model winning 10,000 votes is considered for release. A Lego version of the Japanese Hayabusa asteroid sampler also started life on Cuusoo and went on sale last year.
Pakbaz has also released plans for a Lego version of the Sky Crane daringly employed by NASA to lower Curiosity to the surface of Mars.
Toy Mars rovers have a storied history, going back to Mattel's Pathfinder lander and Sojourner rover models, released in 1996. In 2001, the toy company produced a "Return to Mars" set which included the Mars Polar Lander, the Mars Climate Orbiter and the Deep Space Two probes – all of which failed.
"It went from the 'Return to Mars Set' to the 'Mars Crash Set,'" says Robert Pearlman of CollectSpace.com, a resource for space history enthusiasts. "It taught Mattel a lesson about trying to release something before there was a success." The company waited until after Curiosity safely landed on 6 August last year before releasing a toy.
Lego, on the other hand, took a risk on the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission, composed of the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity, and released 858-piece building block sets in advance of the rovers' landings in 2004. Those models are now popular collectors' items. "You're lucky if you can find one in a box for less than a few hundred dollars," says Pearlman.
Even those who work every day on the real Curiosity are excited to pick up the new toy. "I think it's fantastic that Lego is taking on a Curiosity design," says John Grotzinger of Caltech, the rover's principal scientist. "I enjoyed putting the MER model together with my older daughter and now I'll get to do the same with my younger daughter."