Emily LakdawallaSep 03, 2012

An amazing LEGO model of Curiosity

I think I've received a dozen emails from people pointing me to a LEGO model of the Curiosity rover at the CUUSOO website. CUUSOO is a website where LEGO modelers can share concepts for kits. The CUUSOO community can vote to support concepts, and if the concept receives 10,000 votes, it goes to a LEGO committee. Each quarter, the committee reviews the supported concepts, and may choose one to actually bring to market as an official LEGO kit. There have been three CUUSOO products so far: the Shinkai 6500 (a Japanese deep-sea scientific exploration submarine, available only in Japan), a model of Hayabusa now available for sale, and a Minecraft Micro World, in production.

The Curiosity model was designed by Stephen Pakbaz (a.k.a. Perijove), and it looks really good. It achieved its 10,000 votes on August 18, and is one of only three models to do so in time for the fall review. (Since one of the others is a Star Wars item with which there are likely licensing issues, I think its only actual competition is the Portal one.) I had planned to write about it earlier, but was stymied when I went to download photos from Pakbaz's Flickr page and found they were marked "All rights reserved." So I had to contact him first, and I'm super glad that I did because I found out that he had sourced the parts for seven kits that he was sharing with educational outreach organizations, and asked me if I wanted one. Did I want one? YES!

I received the kit last week and I have to say that the design not only looks like Curiosity, it replicates an amazing number of its features and functions in a very small model. I will certainly be using it as a visual aid in my webcasts about the mission!

LEGO rover
LEGO rover My build of Stephen Pakbaz' LEGO Curiosity rover.Image: Emily Lakdawalla

First and foremost, the design accurately represents the function of Curiosity's rocker-bogie suspension system. It is really hard to understand intuitively how this design works to keep the rover body nearly level even as the machine is driving over rocks of similar height to the rover's wheels. The six wheels are attached to a suspension system that is itself attached to the body of the rover at only three places, all of them passive pivots -- two on the sides and one on top. The one on top is a part of a differential that connects the right and left sides, which is key to making the whole thing work. The model gets all of that right. Here's a video that Stephen posted to his Flickr page showing how it works.

The model's arm and mast head are articulated in a way that accurately represents the real thing, and allows you to place the parts of the rover in the positions they'd occupy when doing their thing on Mars. There are spots representing the inlet ports for the two lab instruments, SAM and CheMin, and all three of the antennas are represented (the HGA even pivots and swivels).  I have to say, though, that my favorite feature is the four pairs of minifig binoculars mounted to the body, two fore and two aft, that represent the two pairs of hazcams.

The one thing that's missing, oddly, is the Mastcams. And, of course, when I showed the model to Bill Nye, he noted that the Marsdial isn't there!

I found it pretty easy to assemble; the one tricky part that younger builders might need help with is the RTG. The model has only about 300 pieces, quite a comfortable size for a LEGO kit. Its light size is a very good thing, because it means that the rover doesn't break under its own weight when you pick it up.

I really, really hope that LEGO chooses to put this model into production. Even if they don't, though, that shouldn't stop you from building it. Pakbaz has made the instructions available for download. If you don't have all the parts you need, it's possible to buy parts individually at sites such as Bricklink. Even better, he's posted a design for a descent stage and transparent stand that holds the whole thing together. Pure awesome.

I'm assuming that those of you who are still reading are likely to be adult fans of LEGO. So now I have a question for you all that is unrelated to the topic of this post. I have 3- and 6-year-old children. I also have a closet containing I don't know how many pounds of LEGO bricks -- but it's a lot. They're all sorted, by type and color; the Technic parts are organized in hardware drawers. Now, I have bought my kids a large quantity of Duplo that they and I have enjoyed building with. But based on their play with the small box of small LEGO bricks that they have available to them, they're ready for the real thing. Some 3-year-olds might be too young, but my little one is even more into it than my older one; she's clearly my little engineer. Now, I could just buy them new sets, but it seems really silly to buy more LEGO when I have a closet full. Yet I'm not sure how to make that available to them. I certainly don't want to pull out the whole collection at once. Are any of you out there parents who've confronted the same situation? Do you take out a somewhat random selection of bricks and dump them in a box and let them have at it? Do you reconstruct sets and give them one set at a time, as though they were acquiring them new? (I, of course, have a file drawer with the instructions carefully organized by theme.) I welcome your comments based on your own experience sharing your LEGO collections with your kids!

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