NASA's Ambitious Mars Probe "Curiosity" Set for Liftoff Saturday Morning

NASA's Ambitious Mars Probe "Curiosity" Set for Liftoff Saturday Morning

NASA is hoping for better luck than Russia tomorrow when it launches the next U.S. Mars probe — Curiosity.  But for this mission, launch may be the easy part.

While Russia continues to try and ascertain what went wrong with its Phobos-Grunt spacecraft, NASA plans to launch the Mars Science Laboratory, Curiosity, Saturday at 10:02 am EST.   The launch window that day is open for 1 hour and 43 minutes.   Overall, the launch window for this mission remains open through December 18.   It will be launched on an Atlas V from Cape Canaveral, FL.

Curiosity is a rover, but much larger than its immediate predecessors Spirit and Opportunity, and is dedicated to studying the “habitability” of Mars — could the Martian environment, now or in the past, support life.   Spirit and Opportunity, which landed on Mars in 2004, were designed to investigate Mars’s geology.   Spirit ended its mission last year; Opportunity continues to operate.  Both were designed to work for only 90 days.   Curiosity is designed for a one-year mission lifetime — that’s one Martian year (687 Earth days).  

From a series of Mariner probes in the 1960s and early 1970s, to Viking 1 and 2 (the first Mars landers) that landed in 1976, to Mars Global Surveyor, Mars Pathfinder, Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Phoenix, and Spirit and Opportunity, data from NASA Mars orbiters and landers literally have rewritten the textbooks about the Red Planet.   Scientists hope Curiosity will follow suit.

The United States has had its share of failed Mars missions, too, however — Mariner 3, Mariner 8, Mars Observer, Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander.   Russia has had only one partial success (Phobos 2) in the more than a dozen missions it has launched to Mars since the 1960s.  If Phobos-Grunt fails, it will also count as a failure for China, whose first Mars probe (an orbiter, Yinghuo-1) is aboard.

Europe also has sent a spacecraft to Mars.  Launched on a Russian launch vehicle in 2003, the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) Mars Express is a success; it has been orbiting Mars since 2004.   However, a small lander from the United Kingdom that it carried, Beagle 2, was lost.   Japan attempted to send a probe, Nozomi, to Mars, but it failed.

The significant number of Mars mission failures has given rise to the legend of a “Galactic Ghoul” that devours spacecraft headed there.

Assuming Curiosity survives launch and the Galactic Ghoul, it still faces a big challenge in landing on Mars.   It is too massive to use previous landing methods such as airbags, so NASA devised an innovative “sky crane,” which is better viewed than described in words.  The launch of Curiosity was delayed by two years while engineers worked to remedy unexpected problems and conduct additional tests.    If the launch goes tomorrow, Curiosity will arrive at Mars in August 2012 and the nail-biting will begin in earnest.

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