CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida – The world's biggest extraterrestrial explorer, NASA's Curiosity rover, rocketed toward Mars on Saturday on a search for evidence that the red planet might once have been home to itsy-bitsy life.
It will take 8½ months for Curiosity to reach Mars following a journey of 354 million miles.
NASA's Curiosity rover has begun the journey to Mars after its Atlas V rocket launched successfully from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Nov. 26. Ten instruments aboard MSL will provide new data about whether the area within and around Mars' Gale Crater could ever have supported microbial life. The Mars Science Laboratory is expected to reach Mars next August.
An unmanned Atlas V rocket hoisted the rover, officially known as Mars Science Laboratory, into a cloudy late morning sky. A Mars frenzy gripped the launch site, with more than 13,000 guests jamming the space center for NASA's first launch to Earth's next-door neighbor in four years, and the first send-off of a Martian rover in eight years.
NASA astrobiologist Pan Conrad, whose carbon compound-seeking instrument is on the rover, had a shirt custom made for the occasion. Her bright blue, short-sleeve blouse was emblazoned with rockets, planets and the words, "Next stop Mars!"
Conrad jumped, cheered and snapped pictures as the rocket blasted off a few miles away. So did Los Alamos National Laboratory's Roger Wiens, a planetary scientist in charge of Curiosity's rock-zapping laser machine, called ChemCam.
Wiens shouted "Go, Go, Go!" as the rocket soared. "It was beautiful," he later observed, just as NASA declared the launch a full success.
In NASA's video Part I, NASA scientists provide background information on previous missions to the planet Mars, the evolution of Mars including its past history and whether it ever contained habitable life, the complexity of sending the MSL to Mars and safely landing the Curiosity Rover on the surface of Gale Crater its landing site, and the Curiosity Rover's exploration of Gale Crater and collecting rock and soil samples for signs of previous habitable life.
The 1-ton Curiosity — as large as a car — is a mobile, nuclear-powered laboratory holding 10 science instruments that will sample Martian soil and rocks, and analyze them right on the spot. There's a drill as well as a stone-zapping laser machine.
NASA's video Part II provides a breathtaking animation of the MSL spacecraft as it approaches Mars, cruises into Mars orbit and locates Gale Crater, its landing site; The MSL as it makes its Mars entry approach, begins its descent through the Martian atomosphere and safely lands on the surface of Gale Crater; and a view of the Curiosity Rover as it begins exploring Gale Crater, drilling rock and collecting soil, then using its onboard science lab to analyze the rock and soil samples for evidence of previous habitable life; and how the Curiosity Rover communicates with an orbiting Mars satellite that transmits valuable scientific data and Mars images back to NASA on Earth.
NASA's Colleen Hartman, assistant associate administrator for science said.
"It's really a rover on steroids. It's an order of magnitude more capable than anything we have ever launched to any planet in the solar system.
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 — 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 arm has a jackhammer on the end to drill into the Martian red rock, and the 7-foot mast on the rover is topped with high-definition and laser cameras. No previous Martian rover has been so sophisticated or capable.
With Mars the ultimate goal for astronauts, NASA also 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.
The world has launched more than three dozen missions to the ever-alluring Mars, which is more like Earth than the other solar-system planets. Yet fewer than half those quests have succeeded.
Just two weeks ago, a Russian spacecraft ended up stuck in orbit around Earth, rather than en route to the Martian moon Phobos.
"Mars really is the Bermuda Triangle of the solar system. It's the death planet, and the United States of America is the only nation in the world that has ever landed and driven robotic explorers on the surface of Mars, and now we're set to do it again."
Curiosity's arrival next August will be particularly hair-raising.
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. Besides, this new way should provide for a more accurate landing.
Astronauts will need to make similarly precise landings on Mars one day.
Curiosity will spend a minimum of two years roaming around Gale Crater, chosen as the landing site because it's rich in minerals. Scientists said if there is any place on Mars that might have been ripe for life, it would be there.
Conrad said with a chuckle earlier in the week.
"I like to say it's extraterrestrial real estate appraisal."
The rover — 10 feet long and 9 feet wide — should be able to go farther and work harder than any previous Mars explorer because of its power source: 10.6 pounds of radioactive plutonium. The nuclear generator was encased in several protective layers in case of a launch accident.
NASA expects to put at least 12 miles on the odometer, once the rover sets down on the Martian surface.
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.
NASA hails this as the year of the solar system.
COMMENTARY: I was very excited to hear that the Atlas V rocket carrying the Mars Science Laboratory and Curiosity Rover were successfuly launched into outer space on Saturday, November 26, 2011.
MSL embarks on a nine-month trip to the Red Planet, where it will arrive sometime in August 2012. If everything goes well, and we safely land the Curiosity Rover on Gale Crater, we will hopefully know whether there ever was or still exists habitable life on the planet Mars. It would be an incredible discovery knowing that there is evidence of life outside planet Earth.
I covered the Mars Science Laboratory and Curiosity Rover in two previous blog posts dated April 10, 2011 and August 9, 2011 and hope you will take the time to read them and view the array of videos and pictures of the Curiosity Rover as it was being built, if you haven't already done so.
History of Exploratory Space Probes To Mars
The U.S. is not the first country to send exploratory space probes to the Red Planet. The Russians were the first, sending three probes:
- Mars 2 - Launched in 1971, but it malfunctioned and crashed on the surface of Mars.
- Mars 3 - Landed successfuly on the surface of Mars on December 2, 1971, but ceased radio transmission after 15 seconds.
- Mars 6 - Launched in 1973, sent data while descending, but failed to land successfully.
The U.S. has successfully landed six exploratory probes or rovers on the surface of Mars since 1975. All of them took images analyzed data and transmitted the data back to NASA.
Below is a list of all missions sent to Mars by the U.S. and Russia, including the landing or crash sites since 1970:
The Curiosity is the fourth in the series of robotic Mars exploration rovers (MER), and is designed very differently than first three: Pathfinder, Spirit andOpportunity, which were a lot smaller and equipped with their characteristic solar panel wings on the top.
- Pathfinder landed on Mars on July 4, 1997. Communications was lost on September 27, 1997.
- Spirit landed successfully on Mars on January 4, 2004. Nearly 6 years after the original mission limit, Spirit had covered a total distance of 7.73 km (4.80 miles) but its wheels were trapped in sand. Around January 26, 2010, NASA admitted defeat in its efforts to free the rover and stated that it would now function as a stationary science platform. Since March 22, 2010 there has been no communication from the rover, though there is still hope that it may resume communication because the opportunity for energy generation will increase in its current location until mid-March 2011.
- Opportunity landed successfully on January 25, 2004. Rover was still operating as of January 2011, surpassing the previous record for longevity of a surface mission to Mars on May 20.
Mars Science Laboratory 'Curiosity' Rover Specifications
Major dimensions for the previous MER rovers are:
- Height: 1.5m / 4.9 ft (inc. deployed PMA)
- Width: 2.3m / 7.5 ft
- Length: 1.6m / 5,2 ft
- Mass: 174 kg / 384 lb : However, this may not be quite correct. According to Design and Verification of the MER Primary Payload, the total mass of the Mars Exploration Rover is 180.1 kg. Of this, the mass of the Rover WEB is 145.6 kg, and the mass of Rover mobility components (e.g. wheels, rocker-bogie suspension) is 34.5 kg.
Curiosity is comparable in size to a small car – a hull 4 m, weight 930 kg wtih equipment. Previous MER rovers (Pathfinder, Spirit and Opportunity) had a much more modest dimensions (above).
Mars Science Laboratory 'Curiosity' Rover Mission and Key Elements
The key elements of the Mars Science Laboratory's Curiosity Mars rover are biological and technological:
- Search for evidence of life on Mars.
- Demonstrate the ability to land a very large, heavy rover to the surface of Mars (which could be used for a future Mars Sample Return mission that would collect rocks and soils and send them back to Earth for laboratory analysis)
- Demonstrate the ability to land more precisely in a 20-kilometer (12.4-mile) landing circle
- Demonstrate long-range mobility on the surface of the red planet (5-20 kilometers or about 3 to 12 miles) for the collection of more diverse samples and studies.
- Curiosity, will use a laser that will be used to zap rocks and patches of soil with enough power to generate a flash revealing each target's atomic ingredients.
These are elements that will become increasingly important as we approach sending manned missions the Phobos, and later to Mars itself. Visit the Mars Science Laboratory website to read press releases, view pictures and videos of NASA scientists during the construction, testing, preparation for launch and launch of the MSL 'Curiosity' Rover.
Mars' Gale Crater: Curiosity Rovers Landing Site
On July 22, 2011, NASA announced that Gale Crater, an ancient, 150-kilometer-wide depression with a large mountain in the middle will be the landing site for the Mars rover Curiosity. Gale Crater’s central mound is a 5-kilometer-tall stack of sediments that scientists can read like chapters in a history book. The rocky pages will reveal Mars’ geologic and environmental history, including how much water may have drenched the basin once upon a time. The crater also features canyons and fissures that may once have been habitable.
11 Amazing Things The Curiosity Rover Can Do
The car-size Curiosity rover is the centerpiece of NASA's $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission, which blasted off Saturday (Nov. 26) from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Curiosity's main goal is to assess whether the Red Planet is, or ever was, capable of supporting microbial life.
The rover will employ 10 different science instruments to help it answer this question once it touches down on the Red Planet in August 2012. Here's a brief rundown of these instruments (and one more on the rover's heat shield):
- Mast Camera (MastCam) - The MastCam is Curiosity's workhorse imaging tool. It will capture high-resolution color pictures and video of the Martian landscape, which scientists will study and laypeople will gawk at. It consists of two camera systems mounted on a mast that rises above Curiosity's main body, so the instrument will have a good view of the Red Planet environment as the rover chugs through it. MastCam images will also help the mission team drive and operate Curiosity. [Photos of NASA's Curiosity Rover]
- Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) - MAHLI will function much like a high-powered magnifying glass, allowing Earthbound scientists to get up-close looks at Martian rocks and soil. The instrument will take color pictures of features as tiny as 12.5 microns — smaller than the width of a human hair. MAHLI sits on the end of Curiosity's five-jointed, 7-foot (2.1-meter) robotic arm, which is itself a marvel of engineering. So mission scientists will be able to point their high-tech hand lens pretty much wherever they want.
- Mars Descent Imager (MARDI) - MARDI, a small camera located on Curiosity's main body, will record video of the rover's descent to the Martian surface (which will be accomplished with the help of a hovering, rocket-powered sky crane). [Video: Curiosity's Peculiar Landing] MARDI will click on a mile or two above the ground, as soon as Curiosity jettisons its heat shield. The instrument will then take video at five frames per second until the rover touches down. The footage will help the MSL team plan Curiosity's Red Planet rovings, and it should also provide information about the geological context of the landing site, the 100-mile-wide (160-km) Gale Crater.
- Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) - SAM is the heart of Curiosity; at 83 pounds (38 kilograms), it makes up about half of the rover's science payload. SAM is actually a suite of three separate instruments — a mass spectrometer, a gas chromatograph and a laser spectrometer. These instruments will search for carbon-containing compounds, the building blocks of life as we know it. They will also look for other elements associated with life on Earth, such as hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen. The SAM instrument suite is located in Curiosity's main body. The rover's robotic arm will drop samples into SAM via an inlet on the rover's exterior. Some of these samples will come from the interior of rocks, powder bored out by a 2-inch (5-centimeter) drill situated at the end of the arm. None of Curiosity's predecessors could get deep into Martian rocks, so scientists are excited about the drill. "For a geologist that studies rocks, there's nothing better than getting inside," said MSL deputy project scientist Joy Crisp, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
- Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) - CheMin will identify different types of minerals on Mars and quantify their abundance, which will help scientists better understand past environmental conditions on the Red Planet. Like SAM, CheMin has an inlet on Curiosity's exterior to accept samples delivered by the rover's robotic arm. The instrument will shine a fine X-ray beam through the sample, identifying minerals' crystalline structures based on how the X-rays diffract. "This is like magic to us," Crisp told SPACE.com. X-ray diffraction is a leading diagnostic technique for Earthbound geologists, she explained, but it hasn't made it to Mars yet. So CheMin should help Curiosity provide more definitive mineral characterizations than previous Mars rovers such as Spirit and Opportunity have been able to achieve.
- Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) - For sheer coolness, it's tough to beat ChemCam. This instrument will fire a laser at Martian rocks from up to 30 feet (9 meters) away and analyze the composition of the vaporized bits. ChemCam will thus enable Curiosity to study rocks that are out of reach of its flexible robotic arm. It will also help the mission team determine from afar whether or not they want to send the rover over to investigate a particular landform. ChemCam is composed of several different parts. The laser sits on Curiosity's mast, along with a camera and a small telescope. Three spectrographs sit in the rover's body, connected to the mast components by fiber optics. The spectrographs will analyze the light emitted by excited electrons in the vaporized rock samples.
- Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) - APXS, which sits at the end of Curiosity's arm, will measure the abundances of various chemicalelements in Martian rocks and dirt. Curiosity will place the instrument in contact with samples of interest, and APXS will shoot out X-rays and helium nuclei. This barrage will knock electrons in the sample out of their orbits, causing a release of X-rays. Scientists will be able to identify elements based on the characteristic energies of these emitted X-rays. Spirit and Opportunity were outfitted with a previous version of APXS and used the instrument to help elucidate the prominent role water has played in shaping the Martian landscape. [Latest Mars Photos From Spirit and Opportunity]
- Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN) - DAN, located near the back of Curiosity's main body, will help the rover search for ice and water-logged minerals beneath the Martian surface. The instrument will fire beams of neutrons at the ground, then note the speed at which these particles travel when they bounce back. Hydrogen atoms tend to slow neutrons down, so an abundance of sluggish neutrons would signal underground water or ice. DAN should be able to map out water concentrations as low as 0.1 percent at depths up to 6 feet (2 m).
- Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) - The toaster-size RAD is designed specifically to help prepare for future human exploration of Mars. The instrument will measure and identify high-energy radiation of all types on the Red Planet, from fast-moving protons to gamma rays. RAD's observations will allow scientists to determine just how much radiation an astronaut would beexposed to on Mars. This information could also help researchers understand how much of a hurdle Mars' radiation environment might have posed to the origin and evolution of life on the Red Planet.
- Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS) - This tool, which sits partway up Curiosity's mast, is a Martian weather station. REMS will measure atmospheric pressure, humidity, wind speed and direction, air temperature, ground temperature and ultraviolet radiation. All of this information will be integrated into daily and seasonal reports, allowing scientists to get a detailed look at the Martian environment.
- MSL Entry, Descent and Landing Instrumentation (MEDLI) - MEDLI isn't one of Curiosity's 10 instruments, since it's built into the heat shield that will protect the rover on its descent through the Martian atmosphere. But it's worth a few words here. MEDLI will measure the temperatures and pressures the heat shield experiences as the MSL spacecraft streaks through the Martian sky. This information will tell engineers how well the heat shield, and their models of the spacecraft's trajectory, performed. Researchers will use MEDLI data to improve designs for future Mars-bound spacecraft.
I will continue to update my blog fans on the progress of the Mars Science Laboratory 'Curiosity' Rover and its approach and safely landing on Gale Crater on the surface of Mars sometimes in August 2012. See you then.