Monday, November 28, 2011

NASA Launches Rover to Mars

An unmanned Atlas 5 rocket blasted off on November26 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, launching a $2.5 billion nuclear-powered NASA rover toward Mars to look for life habitats there. This is the third astronomical mission to be launched from Cape Canaveral by NASA since the retirement of the venerable space shuttle fleet this summer. The Juno probe is en route to Jupiter, and twin spacecraft named Grail will arrive at Earth's moon on New Year's Eve and Day.
Nine-Month Journey
The 20-story-tall booster built by United Launch Alliance lifted off from its seaside launch pad soaring through partly cloudy skies as it headed into space to send NASA's Mars Science Laboratory on a 556 million km, nearly nine-month journey to the 'Red Planet'.
The primary goal of the $2.5 billion mission is to see whether cold, dry, barren Mars might have been hospitable for microbial life once upon a time รข” or might even still be conducive to life now. No actual life detectors are on board; rather, the instruments will hunt for organic compounds.
Curiosity's 7-foot (2.1-meter) arm has a jackhammer on the end to drill into the Martian red rock, and the 7-foot (2.1-meter) mast on the rover is topped with high-definition and laser cameras.
With Mars the ultimate goal for astronauts, NASA will use Curiosity to measure radiation at the red planet. The rover also has a weather station on board that will provide temperature, wind and humidity readings; a computer software app with daily weather updates is planned.
First Astrobiology Mission
"Mars Science Lab is on its way to Mars," NASA launch commentator George Diller said as the spacecraft separated from the rocket.
The car-sized rover is expected to touch down on August 6, 2012, to begin two years of detailed analysis of a 154-km wide impact basin near the Martian equator called Gale Crater. The mission's goal is to determine if Mars has or ever had environments to support life. It is the first astrobiology mission to Mars since the 1970s-era Viking probes.
Scientists chose the landing area because it has a 4.8-km high mountain of what appears from orbital imagery and mineral analysis to be layers of rock piled up like the Grand Canyon, each layer testifying to a different period in Mars' history.
The rover, nicknamed Curiosity, has 17 cameras and 10 science instruments, including chemistry labs, to identify elements in soil and rock samples to be dug up by the probe's drill-tipped robotic arm.
Curiosity is powered by heat from the radioactive decay of plutonium. It is designed to last one Martian year, or 687 Earth days.
In a spacecraft first, the rover will be lowered onto the Martian surface via a jet pack and tether system similar to the sky cranes used to lower heavy equipment into remote areas on Earth.
Curiosity is too heavy to use air bags like its much smaller predecessors, Spirit and Opportunity, did in 2004. In addition, this new way should provide for a more accurate landing.

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