NASA began its boldest venture yet to another planet, sending its Mars Curious Rover and Science Laboratory on an eight-month journey. The rover is expected to provide Earth with new and more detailed information about whether Mars is — or ever has been — hospitable to life. Curiosity was only postponed by one day to replace a faulty battery.
The launch itself went off flawlessly at 7:02 a.m. PST Saturday, the rocket rising on a column of white smoke into a blue sky mottled with puffy cumulous clouds.
“Whew! That felt so good,” exulted Joy Crisp, a deputy project scientist from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in La-Canada Flintridge. “That was spectacular!”
The rocket’s payload carried the largest and most sophisticated in a series of robotic vehicles that NASA has landed on the Red Planet.
Built at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Curiosity is a six-wheeled, one-ton, car-sized vehicle crammed full of sophisticated scientific gadgets.
Its mission, NASA officials stressed, is not to find life on Mars, but to find out whether life could have existed on Mars in the form of microbes, tiny organisms that are abundant on Earth. It also will try to find further evidence to suggest whether astronauts could survive on Mars.
“I like to say it’s extraterrestrial real estate appraisal,” said Pan Conrad, a JPL astrobiologist, at a prelaunch briefing earlier in the week.
Within hours of takeoff, control of the spaceship was shifting from the Kennedy Space Center to JPL, which will run the mission for its duration, which is expected to be a minimum of two years.
The Mars Science Lab faced a journey of 354 million miles, which it expects to end in spectacular fashion in early August. Because of the size of the rover, NASA decided that its previous technique, in which the vehicles were bounced onto the surface of the planet on air bags, would not work.
So Curiosity, after being slowed in its descent by parachutes, will be lowered softly — NASA hopes –using a sky crane modeled after those used by helicopters.
Once on the ground, NASA intends for the rover to spend one Martian year, which is about two Earth years, exploring an area called Gale Crater, which includes a gently sloped, three-mile-high mountain made of sedimentary rock.