November 26, 2011
Curiosity Blasts Off En Route To Mars
The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) spacecraft and the rover known as Curiosity are on their way to the Red Planet after lifting off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Space Launch Complex 41 shortly after 10am EST Saturday.
An Atlas V rocket carrying MSL successfully ignited and cleared the tower at 10:02am Eastern on November 26, according to NASA's official launch blog.
Approximately four minutes later, the first stage exhausted its propellant and fell away, and at 10:07am, the Centaur upper stage engine fired with the rocket moving at a speed of approximately 12,600mph at a height of 100 miles above the Earth's surface. The Centaur burned for seven minutes, shut down for a period of 20 minutes, then re-ignited to propel the vehicle out of the planet's orbit.
Curiosity's journey to Mars will take approximately eight and a half months, and will cover more than 350 million miles, the Associated Press (AP) reports.
The U.S. space agency has said that the nearly 8,500-pound MSL is scheduled to touch-down on Mars on August 6, 2012 at between 1:00am and 1:30am EDT. The rover is 9 feet, 10 inches long (not counting the arm); 9 feet, 1 inch wide; and 7 feet tall at the mast. It has an arm length of 7 feet, a wheel diameter of 20 inches, weighs about five times more than the Mars rovers that came immediately before it, and uses both a radioisotope thermoelectric generator and lithium-ion batteries for power.
Colleen Hartman, assistant associate administrator at NASA's science mission directorate, called it "a rover on steroids" during a pre-launch news briefing, Space.com's Mike Wall said Saturday morning.
"This is a Mars scientist's dream machine," Ashwin Vasavada, MSL deputy project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, added in comments made to AFP reporters. "This is the most capable scientific explorer we have ever sent out... We are super excited."
Curiosity will touch down at Gale Crater, which originally had been a candidate as a landing zone for the 2003 Mars Exploration Rover mission. Gale Crater is believed to be between 3.5 to 3.8 billion years old, and has an odd mound of debris in its central peak, which scientists believe is the eroded remnant of sedimentary layers that once filled the crater completely.
According to the mission's press kit, MSL will use 10 state of the art instruments to study whether or not the Gate Crater region of the planet has any evidence that the planet currently or previously had any habitable environments. The six-wheeled rover will collect and analyze dozens of samples from rocks and the soil, seeking the presence of the chemical building blocks of life.
"We are basically reading the history of Mars' environmental evolution," John Grotzinger, project scientist for MSL at the California Institute of Technology, told AFP.
"We start at the bottom where the clays are, we go to the sulfates, and we come up and go to the top of the mound and get rocks we think were formed in largely non-water bearing environments representing the drier, more recent phase of Mars," he added.
As previously reported here on Red Orbit, Curiosity will be using a different type of landing system than the rovers that preceded it. The spacecraft will be guided by small rockets on its way toward the surface, and will be slowed by a large parachute as it nears Mars.
As it loses speed, the rockets will re-fire, controlling the lab's descent until the rover separates from its final delivery system. Then, 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 $2.5 billion mission is expected to last one Martian year, or 98 weeks, NASA said.
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