NASA announced Tuesday that it will launch its latest mission to Mars, sending a rover to the planet next week.
NASA will launch the rover — nicknamed Curiosity — using an Atlas V rocket at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on November 25, space agency officials said.
“Preparations are on track for launching at our first opportunity,” said Pete Theisinger, Mars Science Laboratory project manager at NASA ‘s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “If weather or other factors prevent launching then, we have more opportunities through December 18.”
The mission to Mars will take over eight months, NASA officials say. The rover is expected to arrive on the planet on August 6, 2012. The rover is reportedly nearly seven foot tall and is twice as big as previous Mars’ rovers. Officials say the rover weighs over a ton, and it is expected to carry more than ten times the amount of scientific equipment sent with the Spirit and Opportunity rovers launched in 2004. The mission cost: $2.5 billion.
The rover will travel to Mars, where it will land in Gale crater, which is thought to be about three and a half billion years old and more than 95 miles in diameter. The crater has a combined size of Connecticut and Rhode Island with a three-mile-high mountain of layered sedimentary rock at its bottom — an enticing area of exploration for scientists. Curiosity will survey the area, using equipment in Mars Science Laboratory, which is stored within the confines of the rover. Scientists say the rover will roam Mars powered by a nuclear battery rated for a minimum lifetime of 14 years, possibly providing NASA with a long-term presence on the Red Planet. The landing site is thought to have sediments washed from the crater wall, and gives access to a region of interesting rocks, clay minerals and sulphate salts, said NASA officials.
While the rover lacks life-detection experiments, it is equipped with instruments allowing it to detect whether carbon and minerals used by living things persisted on Mars. The rover will reportedly focus on the walls of ravines that appear shaped by water, providing NASA with an astrobiologist that has the capacity to analyze Mars’ geology and atmosphere. Previous rovers simply searched for evidence of water on the Red Planet.
Scientists will use the rover to search for mineral clues indicative of a past Martian environment that might have supported life. The instrument uses X-ray diffraction, a first for a mission to the Red Planet, and a more definitive method to identify minerals than any other instrument on previous Mars missions. NASA officials say the data collected by the rover will be useful in the search for potential mineral biosignatures, energy sources for life or indicators of past habitable environments.
The Mars mission comes just days after a Russian probe on its way to Mars’s moon Phobos failed to exit low-earth orbit, sending Russian officials scrambling. Over the weekend, reports speculated whether Russian officials could address the technical issues in order to keep the mission afloat, however, Russian officials expressed little hope of recovering and are said to be preparing for plans to destroy the probe before it enters earth’s atmosphere.