NASA awaiting launch of mobile laboratory

November 24, 2011 5:03:23 PM PST
Inside the halls of NASA, Thanksgiving is coming a couple of days early. If all goes according to schedule, scientists will breathe a huge sigh of relief Saturday morning after the launch of an ambitious spacecraft.

We have landed instruments and rovers on the Red Planet before, but none this big or this complex. Imagine delivering a mobile laboratory as big as a small van. It has to be for all the questions it will be asking.

The last time human beings actually looked at the Mars Science Laboratory, it was with "Curiosity." Earlier this month, engineers at Kennedy Space Center locked it up and put it in the shell that will protect it atop of an atlas rocket.

"The people who worry about landing consider this a prologue," said JP project scientist Ashwin Vasavadsa.

If all goes according to plan, next August, we will witness the most complex landing since men went to the moon.

"It is the biggest and heaviest piece of equipment we have put on the martian surface, so it required some new innovations," Vasavadsa said.

Unlike previous missions, Curiosity will reach the Red Planet beneath a rocket pack that will use a tether to lower it to the surface. After that, the rocket pack will fly about about half a mile away and crash, leaving Curiosity at the bottom of 100-mile wide crater. And, that is where it may make the lasting headlines, according to Andrew Fraknoi of Foothill College.

"If water flows downhill, this would have been a place where water accumulated," Vasavadsa explained.

And so, Curiosity's coming odyssey. Curiosity will be mobile, able to drill, to pulverize rock, and to analyze it. Scientists hope it finds organic materials like methane carbon compounds. From what we know of Mars so far, those are distinct possibilities given the planets geologic history.

"It had a thick atmosphere, water, lakes, rivers, all the requirements for life," Vasavadsa said. "So, we are not looking for life today, but signs that it formed in the distant past."

So, why this crater as a landing spot? There is evidence that somewhere in the past, it held a lake. In the middle of it, there is a mountain some three miles high, with more evidence of water. If all goes according to plan, the lander will be able to explore some of the lower layers and build a geologic history.


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