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Mars rover lands at Brainstorm

Speaking at Fortune's tech conference, the head of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory defends the value of space exploration.

A full-scale model of Curiosity, the next-generation Mars rover, was on display at the Fortune Brainstorm: Tech conference here. Ina Fried/CNET

PASADENA, Calif.--While some suggest that space exploration is a luxury we can't afford in tough times, it's not surprising that Charles Elachi doesn't see it that way.

"Our economy is fundamentally dependent on innovation," said Elachi, who heads NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "This is not the time to go back and sit under our shell."

Elachi, speaking at the Fortune Brainstorm: Tech conference, said some of the technology used in space has led to things like GPS and better ways of detecting cancer.

To offer a visual aid to his argument, Elachi brought a full-scale model of the next Mars rover, due to begin its voyage in two years.

The vehicle, known as Curiosity, has 10 times the experiment carrying ability of the last Mars rover and is due to spend at least a martian year (two earth years) gathering data.

Of course, the first-generation rover was only designed to last 90 days and two of those vehicles have now been going for five years.

"Why did they survive?" Elachi said. "It is a combination of being smart and being lucky."

He noted that one of the two current rovers had one of its six wheels fail and the other has had other issues. "After a while you get old, but we've always figured out a way to manage it."

Curiosity will be nuclear powered, as opposed to the solar technology used in the first-generation vehicles.