|Mars Rover (artists impression)|
(Image courtesy of NASA)
NASA's Mars Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) is in final preparations for launch from Florida's Space Coast at 10:25 am (EST) on November the 25th.
The MSL mission will carry 'Curiosity', a mobile rover with more scientific capability than any ever before sent to another planet. The rover is now on an Atlas V rocket awaiting liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
Scheduled to land on Mars in August 2012, the one-ton rover will examine Gale Crater during a nearly two-year prime mission. Curiosity will land near the base of a layered mountain 3 miles (5 kilometers) high inside the crater. The rover will investigate whether environmental conditions ever have been favorable for development of microbial life and preserved evidence of those conditions.
Curiosity is twice as long and five times as heavy as earlier Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. The rover will carry a set of 10 science instruments weighing 15 times as much as its predecessors' science payloads.
The mission is challenging and risky because Curiosity is too heavy to use an air-bag cushioned touchdown. The mission will therefore use a new rocket-powered descent stage lowering the rover on a tether like a kind of sky-crane.
The mission will pioneer these precision landing methods during the spacecraft's crucial dive through Mars' atmosphere next August to place the rover onto a smaller landing target than any previously for a Mars mission. The target inside Gale Crater is 12.4 miles (20 kilometers) by 15.5 miles (25 kilometers). Rough terrain just outside that area would have disqualified the landing site without the improved precision.
No mission to Mars since the Viking landers in the 1970s has sought a direct answer to the question of whether life has existed on Mars. Curiosity is not designed to answer that question by itself, but its investigations for evidence about prerequisites for life will steer potential future missions toward answers.