November 24, 2011

New Rover To Explore For Previous Life On Mars

NASA is launching a new $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory on Saturday at 10:02 a.m. Aboard an unmanned United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket. The launch will take place from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station just south of the Kennedy Space Center, according to Reuters..

The rover, named Curiosity, is being sent in order to answer the question of whether life does or has ever existed on Mars. Previous missions with the Spirit and Opportunity rovers found evidence of water in the planet´s geological past. Curiosity is designed to look for other crucial elements. The new rover includes a robotic arm with a drill, an onboard chemistry lab to analyze powdered samples and a laser that can pulverize rock and soil samples from a distance of 20 feet away.

The Curiosity will be studying an area of the Gale Crater. This is a 96 mile wide basin that has a layered mountain of deposits three miles above its floor, twice as high as the layers of the Grand Canyon.

The rover will be lowered into the canyon using a new sky crane system. The previous Mars missions used airbags to cushion the landers, but the Curiosity at 1,980 pounds needed a beefier system.

Peter Theisinger, Mars Science Lab project manager with Lockheed Martin said, “There are a lot of people who look at that and say, ℠What are you thinking?´. We put together a test program that successfully validated that from a design standpoint it will work. If something decides to break at that point in time, we´re in trouble but we´ve done everything we can think of to do.”

Because the rover needs more power for its instruments, the designers also decided to use a plutonium battery instead of solar power for the rover. These batteries have been used throughout the history of NASA´s space program. In case there´s an accident at launch, radiation monitors have been place throughout the launch site, even though the batter is designed to withstand impacts and explosions.


Image Caption: An artist's concept illustrates what the Mars rover Curiosity will look like on Mars. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)


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