NASA launching 'dream machine'

In an artist's rendering , a "sky crane" lowers Curiosity rover onto Mars. The rover is designed to probe Mars' ability to sustain microbial life.
In an artist's rendering , a "sky crane" lowers Curiosity rover onto Mars. The rover is designed to probe Mars' ability to sustain microbial life. (NASA / JPL-Caltech)

The Mars rover is the biggest and smartest explorer headed to another planet.

Posted: November 23, 2011

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - As big as a car and as well-equipped as a laboratory, NASA's newest Mars rover blows away its predecessors in size and skill.

Nicknamed Curiosity and scheduled for launch Saturday, the rover has a 7-foot arm tipped with a jackhammer and a laser to break through the Martian red rock. What really makes it stand out: It can analyze rocks and soil with unprecedented accuracy.

"This is a Mars scientist's dream machine," said NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Ashwin Vasavada, the deputy project scientist.

Once on the red planet, Curiosity will be on the lookout for organic, carbon-containing compounds. While the rover can't actually detect the presence of living organisms, scientists hope to learn from the $2.5 billion, nuclear-powered mission whether Mars has - or ever had - what it takes to nurture microbial life.

Curiosity will be "the largest and most complex piece of equipment ever placed on the surface of another planet," said Doug McCuistion, director of NASA's Mars exploration program.

Ten feet long, 9 feet wide, and 7 feet tall at its mast, Curiosity is about twice the size of previous rovers Spirit and Opportunity, weighs 1 ton and is loaded with 10 science instruments. Its formal name is Mars Science Laboratory, or MSL.

In a spacecraft first, Curiosity will be lowered to Mars' surface by a jet-pack and a tether system similar to the sky cranes used by helicopters to insert heavy equipment in inaccessible spots on Earth. It's a kind of precision landing that officials say will benefit future explorers on Mars.

The rover is scheduled to arrive at the mineral-rich Gale Crater in August, 81/2 months after embarking on the 354 million-mile voyage aboard an Atlas V rocket.

It's a treacherous journey to Mars, and the road is littered with failures. In all, more than three dozen missions have aimed over the decades at the most Earthlike planet known, but fewer than half have succeeded. Of this flotilla, only one lander is still working on the dry, barren, cold surface - Opportunity - and only three craft still are observing the planet from orbit.

Curiosity is the capstone of what NASA calls the year of the solar system. A spacecraft is in route to Jupiter after lifting off in August from Cape Canaveral, and twin lunar probes launched in September will arrive at the moon New Year's weekend.

A huge crowd - 13,500 invited guests - is expected for Curiosity's Thanksgiving-weekend send-off.

There will be more anxiety than usual over the launch. Curiosity holds 10.6 pounds of plutonium, more than enough to power the rover on the Martian surface for two years. A nuclear generator won out over solar energy because it allows for a bigger workload and more flexibility. The plutonium is encased in several protective layers in case of a launch accident.

Despite all its fancy upgrades, Curiosity will go no faster than the one-tenth-mile-per-hour logged by past Martian rovers. But it is expected to venture more than 12 miles during its two-year mission.

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