NASA’s Curiosity: destination Mars!

Launch of NASA’s Curiosity rover a success.

NASA’s Curiosity rover was launched today at 10:02 a.m. EST from Space Launch Complex 41, on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. At the time of writing this article, the spacecraft has been off the ground for approximately 2.5 hours, winging its way through space to the red planet. With its scheduled arrival time set for August 2012, it has a long and arduous journey ahead.

The launch had been planned for yesterday, but was delayed to allow the team to replace a flight battery within the craft. The mission has been in the pipeline for several years, and aims to gather astrobiological information about the suitability of Mars’s past and present environment to harbour life. It will also collect detailed data about Mars’s climate, terrain and geology, and will investigate the possibility of future human exploration of the planetary surface.

The rover, which is part of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), is equipped with ten times as much scientific gear as any previous Mars mission, including a laser, spectrometer, robotic arms, X-ray instruments, chromatograph, lens imagers and stereo and colour cameras. This capability for colour imaging is particularly exciting, as it will have the potential to depict the Martian surface with higher accuracy than ever before.

Engineers have recently received signals from the craft indicating that all is functioning as expected – a particularly nerve-wracking part of the journey after the ill-fated launch of the Russian Phobos-Grunt probe earlier this month. Following launch, Phobos-Grunt failed to communicate with its Perth-based tracking station as expected, and was presumed a lost cause. A few days ago, the European Space Agency stated that the satellite has in fact made surprise contact with Earth, but whether it can be saved remains to be seen.

Fingers crossed for a better end to NASA’s aptly-named Curiosity rover, a craft that is aiming to solve an age-old question that has mystified scientists for years: was there ever life on Mars?

For a live Twitter feed on Curiosity’s progress, see @MarsCuriosity, or visit the dedicated NASA site.

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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