April 4, 2011

NASA Engineers Getting Mars Rover Ready For 2011 Launch

NASA engineers are finishing up the Curiosity rover that is scheduled to launch in Florida later this year.

A small army of technicians dressed in protective bunny suits have worked around the clock inside a clean room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Los Angeles assembling the craft and testing its science instruments.

The rover was supposed to launch in 2009, but problems during construction forced a two-year delay.

Engineers have been busy testing the spacecraft's various systems while making sure that contamination from Earth doesn't accidentally hitch a ride to Mars.

The nuclear-powered Curiosity will probe rocks and soil to determine whether the red planet ever had the right environment to support primitive life.  Curiosity will carry the most high-tech instruments to the Martian surface including a laser that can zap boulders from afar.

Scientists expect the rover to continue on the discoveries of the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity, which have uncovered geologic evidence of ancient water, and the Phoenix lander.

Engineers had to redesign the rover's heat shield and fix problems with the parachute.  NASA also faced delays from subcontractors that affected the launch timetable and raised the mission price tag.

Curiosity is the most technologically advanced rover NASA has ever built.

The rover will be lowered to the surface by a sky crane, as opposed to using airbags to bounce to a stop on the red planet.

The space agency will begin shipping spacecraft parts to Cape Canaveral beginning next month.  The three-week launch window opens on November 25.

NASA installed a camera in a viewing gallery overlooking the clean room that allows anyone with a computer to watch a live stream of the rover construction. 

Curiosity also has its own Twitter feed with over 29,000 followers.


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