Saturday, November 26, 2011

NASA Launches Nuke-Powered Mars Rover 'On Steroids'

November 26, 2011 - NASA may be hobbled by budget cuts these days, but they're still doing amazing things. The amazing "Curiosity" rover was successfully launched from Cape Canaveral, FL today to make its 8½ month, 354 million mile journey to Mars. It's primary mission is to search for evidence of any past life forms on the red planet.

Curiosity is radically different from the little rovers that went before it. It's much larger. Huge, really, the size of a car. Earlier Mars rovers were about the size of golf cart. Curiosity is more complex and robust, too: Rovers Spirit and Opportunity carried five science instruments, while Curiosity has 10. One of those is a laser that can vaporize rock. Unlike other rovers, Curiosity has equipment that can identify organic molecules, which would give important information about the presence of life.
Space.com quotes Colleen Hartman, assistant associate administrator at NASA's science mission directorate, as saying that "the Mars Science Lab and the rover Curiosity [are] locked and loaded, ready for final countdown on Saturday's launch to Mars." Hartman also said that "This rover, Curiosity rover, is really a rover on steroids."

The most unusual part of the mission, however, may be the unusual, never-before used method for landing on the surface of Mars.

"Curiosity weighs one ton," says ABC News, "and is much too heavy to land on airbags like NASA's previous rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. So it will be slowed by a heat shield and parachute, then gently lowered to the planet's surface on cables suspended from a rocket-powered sky crane. It is the first time this design is being used, and mission managers have openly confessed they're uneasy."

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