NASA launched a new mission to Mars this morning (November 26, 2011). The Mars Science Laboratory which carries a car-sized rover named Curiosity. It lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida aboard an Atlas V rocket at 10:02 a.m. EST (9:02 a.m. CST). Mars Science Laboratory Project Manager Peter Theisinger of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said:
We’re on our way to Mars. The spacecraft is in communication, thermally stable and power positive.
The Atlas V initially lofted the spacecraft into Earth orbit and then, with a second burst from the vehicle’s upper stage, pushed it out of Earth orbit into a 352-million-mile (567-million-kilometer) journey to Mars.
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This mission carries a new Mars rover – named Curiosity, twice as long and five times as heavy as previous Mars rovers – whose ambitious science goals are among the mission’s many differences from the two earlier Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity.
Curiosity will use a drill and scoop at the end of its robotic arm to gather soil and powdered samples of rock interiors, then sieve and parcel out these samples into analytical laboratory instruments inside the rover. Curiosity carries 10 science instruments with a total mass 15 times as large as the science-instrument payloads on the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Some of the tools are the first of their kind on Mars, such as a laser-firing instrument for checking the elemental composition of rocks from a distance, and an X-ray diffraction instrument for definitive identification of minerals in powdered samples.
Because of its one-ton mass, Curiosity is too heavy to employ airbags to cushion its landing as previous Mars rovers could. Part of the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft is a rocket-powered descent stage that will lower the rover on tethers as the rocket engines control the speed of descent.
The new rover, designed to probe the Martian surface and atmosphere for signs of life past, present, or possible, breaks previous barriers in size, design, and capabilities. Notably, its highly precise landing gear enables it to explore an area of the planet deemed inaccessible in the past due to its location near the foot of a mountain. Scientists have long eyed the spot – known as the Gale crater – for its apparent history of running water.
The team at the JPL will do its first trajectory correction in a few weeks, followed by instrument checkouts.
Bottom line: NASA launched a new mission to Mars this morning (November 26, 2011). The Mars Science Laboratory which carries a car-sized rover named Curiosity. It lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida aboard an Atlas V rocket at 10:02 a.m. EST (9:02 a.m. CST).
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and founded EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.