By Andy Choi
A highly sophisticated mobile robotic laboratory of NASA is in its final phase of preparation and will be launched on November 25 from Florida’s Space Coast. The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission will carry the space exploration vehicle, Curiosity, which has advanced scientific capabilities when compared to any rover sent to another planet. Curiosity is presently awaiting launch atop the Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
Employees at Space Launch Complex 41 of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., keep watch as the payload fairing containing NASA's Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft is lifted up the side of the Vertical Integration Facility on Nov. 3, 2011. Image credit: NASA
This one-ton rover is planned to land on Mars in August, 2012 and will study the Gale crater during the mission that will last for around two years. The rover will land at a location, close to the bottom of a 3 mi. high layered mountain within the crater. The research by the rover will involve determining if environmental conditions will favor growth of microbes and evidence if obtained will be preserved. California Institute of Technology’s project scientist for MSL, John Grotzinger stated that Gale provides an excellent chance to evaluate a number of habitable locations and the opportunity to study the planet’s early environmental evolution. Curiosity will land at the part of the crater, which has an alluvial fan having sediments that hold water. Base layers of the mountain comprise sulfates and clay both of which are known to form in water.
Curiosity is two times the size and five times the weight of previous Mars rovers Opportunity and Spirit. The rover is capable of carrying 10 science instruments with weight around 15 times, the science payloads of its predecessors.
The rover has a 7 ft high mast that offers height for cameras and a laser firing instrument to remotely analyze targets. Analytical instruments present in the rover will study the oil and rock sample composition obtained with the powdering scoop and drill of the arm. Instruments to characterize the environment will also be included.
The mission is highly risky and challenging. Since Curiosity is too heavy-weight to utilise an air-bag cushioned touchdown, the mission will utilize a novel landing technique, with a rocket-powered descending stage launching the rover on a tether similar to a sky-crane.