22 Nov 2011

The newest and biggest NASA mission to the Red Planet to date is about to take off.  It will be the first one to land under controlled flight.  It is going to use a multistage landing system, lowering the one-ton rover, via a tether.  NASA is hoping to use this mission as a prototype for rover landings on Mars and other locations.  See the video clip below depicting the animation of the rover landing and operation.

NASA has a window of opportunity that began November 18th and lasts three weeks, with the rover arriving at Mars in the August 2012 timeframe.

The United States is the only nation that has flown to Mars and managed to land a spacecraft to the surface, inclusive of NASA’s two Viking landers in 1976.  This new rover is twice as long and the next-largest to Viking.  It will carry ten of the most high-tech science instruments ever made.  Curiosity can drill holes into the surface and use lasers to analyze chemical composition.  It is capable of driving 12 miles in the expected two-year lifetime.

Curiosity will look for evidence of water that may have once ran near the surface in its target set-down location of the Gale Crater, just south of the planet’s equator.  It will climb this mountainous crater and investigate its many surface layers for hints of conditions that may have existed for microbial life.

Curiosity can determine whether carbon in the soil has the isotopic signature of life, part of NASA’s motto of “Follow the water” on this mission.  Carbon atoms have six protons in the nucleus, but it can have six, seven or eight and remain stable.  Here on Earth, most carbon on life forms is carbon-12 (six protons, six neutrons).  If curiosity detects a high percentage of carbon-12 on Mars, this may suggest biology at work in its present state.  This mission's primary goal is not for detection of whether life currently exists on Mars, but rather if it has in the past.  The work of the mission will lead to other life detection experiments on other missions in the future all striving towards the eventual goal of humans on Mars in the 2030s.


Update:  Curiosity launched and the video clip is here: 


Source:            AFP/NASA/Wikipedia
Image Credit:   Wikipedia

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