PREVIEW: "Not your father's rover" searches for habitats on Mars
By Anne K Walters Nov 22, 2011, 6:06 GMT
Washington - A next-generation Mars rover will soon be on a journey to determine if the Red Planet was ever capable of being home to life.
The Mars Science Laboratory is due to launch Saturday from Kennedy Space Centre in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on a more than eight-month flight to Mars. The launch was originally to take place Friday, but NASA pushed it back by one day to allow technicians to replace a battery.
On reaching Earth's nearest planetary neighbour, the craft will deploy a high-tech, 900-kilogramme rover, known as Curiosity, to follow up on confirmations of water on Mars by past rovers and determine if areas habitable to life ever existed on the planet.
'It's not your father's rover,' said Doug McCuistion, director of NASA's Mars programme.
Curiosity is the 'most complex object ever placed on surface of another planet' and will conduct a nearly two-year mission to Mars, he said.
Zooming toward the surface at more than 19,000 kilometres per hour, the craft will slow itself using thrusters and a parachute, before gently lowering the rover to the surface on a so-called 'sky crane' of cords, like a spider on a thread. The complicated landing manoeuvre is being employed with a rover for the first time; earlier efforts - with much smaller rovers - always involved an airbag-like structure.
The measure is complicated, but NASA is 'confident in our ability to do it successfully,' project manager Pete Theisinger said.
The rover itself is far bigger than any of its predecessors, the size of a large sport-utility vehicle - some 3 metres long and 2 metres high.
The 2.5-billion-dollar Mars Science Laboratory mission will spend at least one Martian year - nearly two Earth years - studying Mars' Gale crater, in a bid to transition between the search for water and the search for life on the planet.
The mission will 'bridge the gap from 'follow the water' to seeking the presence of life,' McCuistion said.
NASA spent the last decade revealing that Mars was once 'wetter than we ever imagined,' and will spend the next decade discerning if the planet was ever habitable, he said.
To do that, Curiosity will make use of a range of new instruments, including a drill that will allow it bore into rocks, said Ashwin Vasavada, principal scientist on the project.
Armed with two cameras atop a mast, Curiosity can take 3-D and panoramic images, and a laser can be shot into rocks to determine their chemical elements. A two-metre long robotic arm can be extended out from the rover to examine its surroundings more closely, and a drill will allow it to take samples from inside rocks.
Like its predecessors, Curiosity is equipped with a series of instruments to analyze the composition of the samples.
The Gale crater, where it will focus its efforts, is nearly 154 kilometres in diameter and features a mountain that rises some 5 kilometres above the surface. The massive feature includes layers of rock strata that will provide a virtual history of Mars' geological past.
The area has already been studied extensively from orbiting spacecraft, giving scientists hope that the rover will provide clues to a probable wet Martian past. The area contains clay and sulfate-rich areas, where organic compounds necessary to life could be found.
Curiosity builds on the work of past rovers, including Opportunity, one of a pair of water-hunting twin rovers that lasted years beyond their orginal missions. Opportunity began a new phase of its mission earlier this year, exploring the Endeavour crater.
NASA eventually hopes to send a manned mission to Mars, and robotic missions to Earth's nearest planetary neighbour have continued. A Russian probe called Phobos-Grnt was launched earlier this month to one of the planet's moons. But in an example of the hazards of space exploration, the craft became stuck in Earth's orbit, and ground control has been unable to establish contact with it.