Curiosity: Launch Day Approaching

The launch day of NASA’s next Mars mission is fast approaching. The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), named Curiosity, is pretty damn awesome. It’s the size of a modern mini and it’s nuclear powered. It is quite literally a nuclear powered mini.

That isn’t the only impressive fact about this mission. It’ll be the first Mars mission to use precision landing techniques, employing a ‘skycrane’ and rockets to lower it to the surface (see video below), seemingly making this the most ambitious landing on another planetary body ever undertaken.

It’s going to reinforce a lot of the discoveries (and surely make a heck of a lot of new ones) made by the smaller rovers Spirit and Opportunity that were operating on Mars over the past few years (in fact Opportunity is still roving around today, more than 7 years since it landed!) Curiosity is mainly a geological mission, that is it doesn’t carry instruments to detect life, but it’ll be able to asses the planets habitability (past and present) and figure out if Mars is or was ever able to support life. It even carries a weather station which excites me as a met geek!

The rover will be carrying loads of cool equipment one of which is a laser that’ll vaporise a rocks surface layer in order to analyse whats beneath. It has a drill so it can grab a sample of rock and actually insert it into a special compartment in the rover to analyse it.

After much debate it was decided MSL will land at Gale crater, an area of Mars showing signs of past aqueous activity.

She’ll be launching atop an Atlas V rocket on the 25 November at 1521GMT so do tune in to NASA TV to watch the show. I’ll be keeping you updated with the progress!

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Destination: Gale Crater

The decision has finally been made. A giant rover known as Curiosity (or the Mars Science Laboratory) that is the size of a Mini will be launched to make a landing in Gale crater on Mars.

Comparison between Sojourner, MER and MSL

As we’ve said, MSL is huge. The size of mini. Over twice the size when compared to the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity. The Sojourner rover insignificant in comparison.

Gale crater is pretty big too, 154km across, and is an ideal place for a rover. It’s thought to hold a lot of evidence for past water on the Red planet. MSL itself has been designed to look for evidence of past life, whether Mars was ever habitable at all in its past. The rover will spend 1 Martian year exploring the surface (about 2 Earth years) and if the MER’s are anything to go by, Curiosity should last longer (although they are using different power generating sources).

The rover is also going to carry out the first precision landing on Mars. It’ll be using a very unique and ambitious system, a sky crane. I’d compare it to being as difficult as a manned lunar module landing, as in Apollo. It’s a pretty incredible system.

Curiosity will be launching sometime between the 25th November and the 18th December 2011 and landing between the 6th and 20th August 2012, so keep checking NASA’s website for updates.

Here are two videos showing the operation of the sky crane and another describing what Curiosity will be doing at Gale.

Links: NASA report on landing site selection
Space.com report