November 25, 2011
NASA’s Curiosity Rover Ready For Saturday Launch
NASA will be embarking on its fourth rover mission to Mars on Saturday with the launch of the long-anticipated rover Curiosity.
The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity rover will take off aboard an Atlas V rocket at 10:02 a.m. (EST) on Saturday.
The spacecraft will arrive at Mars in August 2012 to investigate whether the landing region has had environmental conditions favorable for supporting microbial life.
Curiosity is equipped with the most advanced suit of instruments for scientific studies ever sent to the Red Planet.
The rover will be analyzing dozens of samples scooped from the soil and drilled from rocks. Its onboard laboratory will study rocks, soils, and the local geologic setting in order to detect chemical building blocks of life on Mars.
Curiosity will be landing on Mars at Gale Crater, which is believed to be about 3.5 to 3.8 billion years old.
The crater has an unusual mound of debris in its central peak, but scientists believe it is the eroded remnant of sedimentary layers that once filled the crater completely.
Gale Crater was originally a candidate for the 2003 Mars Exploration Rover mission, which included the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity.
Opportunity is still rolling around on the Martian surface and has been active since 2004. Spirit became stuck in late 2009, and its last communication with Earth was sent on March 22, 2010. NASA continued to try to regain contact with the rover until May 25, 2011, when the space agency announced the end of contact efforts.
Curiosity will be using a different type of landing system for it to successfully land in Gale Crater. The spacecraft will be guided by small rockets on its way toward the surface.
MSL will be slowed by a large parachute towards Mars, and as the spacecraft loses speed, rockets will fire again, controlling the spacecraft's descent until the rover separates from its final delivery system.
The sky crane touchdown system will lower the rover to a "soft landing" with wheels down-on the surface of Mars, placing Curiosity at a ready-state for it to begin its mission.
The rover is also using a plutonium battery instead of solar powered batteries.
NASA expects the Mars mission to last one Martian year, or about 23 Earth months. However, it would not be unusual for the mission to end up lasting years. Both the Opportunity and Spirit rovers were initially a 90-Martian day mission, but each of the rovers received five mission extensions.
Image Caption: Originally taken in July 2010, this photo shows NASA engineers installing six wheels on the Curiosity rover. NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Project will launch Curiosity on Friday, Nov. 26. Curiosity is scheduled for arrival at Mars in August 2012. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
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