A rover of “monster truck” will arrive on Mars after 354 million-mile journey. It is the biggest, best equipped robot ever built to explore another planet.
“It’s an enormous mission. It’s equivalent of three missions, frankly, and quite an undertaking,” said the ecstatic program director, Doug McCuistion. “Science fiction is now science fact. We’re flying to Mars. We’ll get it on the ground and see what we find.”
A six-wheeled vehicle working on nuclear fuel, started its journey at 10:02 a.m. (15:02 GMT) on Saturday from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida atop an Atlas V rocket.
NASA astrobiologist Pan Conrad wore a bright blue blouse with rockets, planets and the slogan, “Next stop Mars!” She jumped and started taking pictures when the rocket blasted off.
So did Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Roger Wiens. He shouted “Go, Go, Go!” as the rocket moved to the sky. “It was beautiful,” he later said.
The rover, named Curiosity, the total cost of which is $2.5 billion, is supposed to provide scientists with detailed information about the rocks on the surface of Mars and find out whether life ever existed on Red Planet.
“This is a Mars scientist’s dream machine,” Ashwin Vasavada, MSL deputy project scientist at said. “This is the most capable scientific explorer we have ever sent out… We are super excited.”
The robotic rover is to touch down on Aug. 6, 2012 at a 96-mile wide basin near the Martian equator Gale Crater. It is the first astrobiology mission to Mars after the Viking probes (1970s).
The landing site was chosen because of its three-mile high mountain each layer of which indicates different period in Mars’ history.
“Mars really is the Bermuda Triangle of the solar system,” said NASA’s assistant associate administrator for science. “It’s the death planet, and the United States of America is the only nation in the world that has ever landed and driven robotic explorers on the surface of Mars, and now we’re set to do it again.”
On the rover there are 17 cameras and 10 science instruments, chemistry labs, to identify elements in soil and rock samples will be dug up by the drill-tipped robotic arm.
The mission’s lead scientist, John Grotzinger, said that the crater’s mountain has clays in its base. That is evidence of a prolonged wet environment.
It is a well-known truth that water is a key element for life, but not the only one. Previous Mars probes sought for signs of past surface water.
Now, using Curiosity, NASA aims to look for other possible ingredients for life, such as organic carbon, the building block for life on Earth. Experts hope to find more than just signs that life existed there — perhaps even signs that microbial life still does.
“It is going to look for places that are habitable either in the past or potentially even in the future or currently,” said an official. “It’s a long shot, but we’re going to try,” Grotzinger said.
NASA’s exploration of Mars started in 1976 when the Viking rover touched down on Red planet and continued with launching of the twin machines Spirit and Opportunity that began tooling around on the Martian surface in 2004. Spirit is not using now, but Opportunity keeps on working. [Via Huff Post, The Hindu and CNews]