CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla – The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover, known more commonly as Curiosity, has begun its long trek to the Red Planet. At 10:02 a.m. EDT on Saturday Nov. 26 a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V 541 roared to life, providing the needed fury to send the high-tech rover on its nearly nine-month (it takes that long for the spacecraft to cover the 352-million miles between Earth and Mars) journey to its destination.
The Atlas V lifted off of from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex – 41 (SLC-41). Curiosity marks the third planetary mission that NASA has launched this year. The first, Juno, also launched on an Atlas V rocket for the gas giant Jupiter. The second was the Gravity And Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) spacecraft to map the Moon’s gravitational aspects.
Curiosity is NASA’s latest and greatest rover, a direct descendent of the 1997 Sojourner rover, which could not leave the line-of-sight of its ground station. After Sojourner, NASA combined the rover and landing station into one mobile platform this evolution of design would give rise to the twin Mars Exploration Rovers (MER), Spirit and Opportunity.
NASA, wanting to send a full laboratory to Mars needed more power than what solar panels could provide. So the space agency approached the Department of Energy and had its next rover equipped with a plutonium-238 dioxide power source. Every precaution was taken to prevent a disaster in case of an accident during launch. The radioactive fuel is in ceramic form, meaning it cannot explode or be easily pulverized enough to present a health hazard.
If Curiosity lands safely on the red planet it will carry with it the most powerful suite of scientific instruments ever employed on another world. Many of these are similar to those used by Spirit and Opportunity – upgraded versions whose designs have been amended with lessons learned from seven years exploring the dusty plains of Mars.
Curiosity’s destination is Gale Crater, named for Walter Frederick Gale, an Australian amateur astronomer. The 96-mile-wide Crater has a peak, approximately the size of Mt. Rainier, located near Seattle that rises out of its center.
This journey of exploration will only begin after what NASA refers to as Entry, Descent and Landing or EDL – it has come to be called “six minutes of terror” due to the length of time that JPL loses contact with the spacecraft during this period. This landing is made more dramatic due to the manner in which the rover will be lowered to the Martian surface.
Mars Science Laboratory’s Project Manager, Pete Theisinger summed up the sentiments of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in his humorous opening statement during the post-launch press conference.
“Good after, our spacecraft is in excellent health and it is on its way to Mars – any questions?” Theisinger said, garnering a healthy round of applause from the members of the media that were in attendance.
“It was a fantastic and smooth operation today really just first rate and tremendously professional.”
Derived from the landing systems of the Viking spacecraft, MSL attached to what is known as the Sky Crane; essentially a rocket-powered jet pack will hover above the surface of Mars. MSL will then slowly be lowered to the ground via three umbilical cables. Once contact with the ground has been detected, the cables will be disconnected and Curiosity will begin its planned year-long mission.
“On behalf of every scientist on this mission, I just want to thank every engineer at JPL, everybody that has worked so hard for almost 10 years to build this spacecraft and put it together,” said the California Institute of Technology’s Project Scientist John Grotzinger. “We are ready to go for landing on the surface of Mars and we could not be happier.”