NASA To Launch Mars Dream Machine 2011

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After nearly a decade of planning, several cost overruns and a two-year delay, NASA is finally set to launch its next Mars rover this week.

The car-size Curiosity rover, the centerpiece of NASA's $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission, is slated to blast off from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Saturday (Nov. 26) after a one-day delay due to a rocket battery issue. The launch comes two years later than the MSL team had originally planned, a slip that ultimately increased the mission's lifetime costs by 56 percent.

But with Curiosity now sitting on the pad, nestled atop its Atlas 5 rocket, MSL's past issues are receding deeper into history. Most eyes are now on the rover's future — its quest to determine if Mars is, or ever was, capable of supporting microbial life.

"This is a Mars scientist's dream machine," Ashwin Vasavada, MSL deputy project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., told reporters on Nov. 10. "This rover is not only the most technically capable rover ever sent to another planet, but it's actually the most capable scientific explorer we've ever sent out."

Curiosity will touch down at Gale Crater, a 100-mile-wide (150 kilometers) hole in the ground with a mysterious 3-mile-high (5 km) mountain rising from its center. The rover will poke around Gale, scrutinizing and sampling the dirt and rocks it encounters.

Curiosity's mission is designed to last for about two Earth years, but it wouldn't be a shock if the rover kept chugging along for significantly longer, officials said. Spirit and Opportunity, after all, far outlasted their planned three-month mission lifetimes. NASA just declared Spirit dead this year, and Opportunity is still cruising around Mars, checking out a huge crater called Endeavour.

"We do test all the mechanism equipment for three times its normal life," Theisinger said. If all goes well, he added, "we should be good for quite an extended period of time."

And Curiosity is powered by radioisotope thermoelectric generators — which produce electricity from the radioactive decay of plutonium — rather than solar cells. The rover should thus be able to handle the harsh Martian winters well, Theisinger said.

So NASA officials expect Friday's launch to mark the start of something big.

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