NASA launches largest-ever Mars rover
The one-ton, car-size Curiosity rocketed from Kennedy Space Center on Saturday. The vehicle is on a mission to determine whether life could have existed on Mars.
Carrying the Mars rover Curiosity, an Atlas 5 rocket lifts off from Cape… (Mike Brown, Reuters)November 27, 2011|By Mitchell Landsberg, Los Angeles TimesReporting from Cape Canaveral, Fla. — With the roar of an Atlas 5 engine, NASA on Saturday began its boldest venture yet to another planet — sending the Mars Science Laboratory on an eight-month journey expected to provide more detailed information about whether the Red Planet is, or ever has been, hospitable to life.
After a one-day delay to replace a faulty battery, the launch went off flawlessly at 7:02 a.m. PST, the rocket rising on a column of white smoke into a blue sky mottled with puffy cumulus clouds.
“Whew! That felt so good,” said Joy Crisp, a deputy project scientist with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge, as the rocket trailed out of sight. “That was spectacular!”
Its payload was the rover Curiosity, the largest and most sophisticated in a series of robotic vehicles that NASA has sent to Mars. Built at JPL, Curiosity is a six-wheeled, one-ton vehicle the size of a compact car that is bristling with an array of sophisticated scientific gadgets.
Its mission, NASA officials have stressed, is not to find life on Mars, but to find out whether life ever could have existed there in the form of microbes, tiny organisms that are abundant on Earth. It also will try to find further evidence to suggest whether astronauts could survive on Mars, part of NASA’s long-term plan to send a manned mission there.
“I like to say it’s extraterrestrial real estate appraisal,” Pan Conrad, a NASA astrobiologist, said at a pre-launch briefing earlier in the week.
Some 43 minutes after launch, a second stage rocket fell away, leaving the science lab capsule on its own. Control of the spaceship then shifted from the Kennedy Space Center to JPL, which will run the mission for its duration, expected to be a minimum of two years.
A group of JPL scientists and engineers at Kennedy burst into applause when the capsule separated from the rocket. Like most people associated with the mission, they were excited and relieved by the successful launch. Many have worked on the Mars Science Laboratory for nearly a decade and had to endure a two-year delay when the project missed its original launch date.
Pete Theisinger, the project manager at JPL, couldn’t stop grinning when he got up to speak at a news conference after the launch. “Our spacecraft is in excellent health and it’s on its way to Mars,” he said. “Any questions?”
The lab faces a journey of 354 million miles. (Although Mars is less than half that distance from Earth, the fact that it is a moving target makes the trip longer.) It is due to land in spectacular fashion just after 10 p.m. PDT on Aug. 5.
This is pretty cool and a few of our former mentors worked on the rover.