The Mars Rover Travel Through Space On Mission To Mars
Now speeding away from Earth, NASA‘s Mars Science Laboratory and its Curiosity rover aim to land on the red planet next August. Science instruments on board cannot detect life directly. But they can yield evidence of all the key building blocks of life as we know it. They can determine whether Mars is, or once was, habitable — suitable to sustaining microbial life. “It’s quite reasonable — not guaranteed — but it’s quite reasonable that this will lead to our finding life on Mars or evidence of life on Mars,” said Bill Nye, “the Science Guy” and executive director of the Planetary Society. And that would have a huge influence on our perception of the universe and our place within it. “It would change the world,” Nye said. “It would absolutely change the world.”
Mounted atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, the high-profile payload blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station with a brilliant burst of flame and a giant whoosh of hot white exhaust. “It was fantastic. It was perfect,” Nye said. “And it’s that striking thing — when the flame is longer than the rocket itself — that always amazes me.”
The Curiosity rover runs on a nuclear battery — a generator that converts heat from the natural decay of Plutonium-238 into electricity. The Plutonium-238 is radioactive. But it is not the same grade used in weapons. “When you say ‘plutonium,’ people think about mushroom clouds and that sort of thing. But this is a different kind of plutonium. It’s not the bomb stuff,” said Marvin Goldman, professor emeritus of radiation biology at the University of California at Davis. The chance of a launch accident that resulted in a release of plutonium was 1 in 420. In that unlikely event, the average dose to anyone exposed would have been about the same as a single dental X-ray. Goldman had no qualms about watching the launch a few miles from the pad. He is a member of the independent safety review board that briefed the White House before launch approval was granted.
The Atlas V rocket gave the Mars Science Lab a problem-free first leg of a 354 million-mile interplanetary journey. During the next eight months, flight controllers will keep the lab and its rover on course for an arrival at Mars between 1 and 1:30 a.m. EDT Aug. 6. Then comes what many believe is the most daring, most treacherous part of the mission — landing inside a gaping crater just below the equator on the eastern side of the planet. The Mars Science Lab will hit the upper reaches of the Martian atmosphere at 13,200 mph.
The 2-ton Curiosity rover is about the size of a Mini Cooper. It’s much too heavy to use the type of airbag landing system employed by NASA’s Pathfinder, Spirit and Opportunity rovers. So engineers designed a scheme that combines parachutes, retrorockets and a sky crane to put Curiosity on the ground. The arrival will involve the first-ever guided entry through the Martian atmosphere. The spacecraft will maneuver like a shuttle on its way toward the landing site, using aerodynamic lift and S-turns to bleed off speed. “We actually have a flying machine now. We fly to the surface of Mars,” said Doug Adams, a senior engineer and entry specialist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. NASA engineers call the tricky entry, descent and landing “our six minutes of terror.” Almost half of all missions to Mars have ended in failure.
“There’s a weight on our shoulders. But it’s one that is happily borne,” Adams said. “It’s our show now, and we hold our own destiny.”
Check out this awesome HD video of Curiosity as he takes off and what he mission will look like on Mars: