NASA to launch new mission to Mars Saturday

November 24th, 2011 - 11:58 pm ICT by IANS  

Mumbai, Nov 24 (IANS) A nuclear-powered Rover - bigger than a Maruti car - which will embark on a nine-month journey to Mars to examine whether the red planet has a habitable environment, will be launched Saturday, a top NASA official said.

The $2.50 billion Mars Science Laboratory will be launched aboard an unmanned United Space Alliance Atlas 5 rocket, around 8 p.m. (IST), from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, near Kennedy Space Centre, Florida, Amitabha Ghosh, of the mission’s Landing Site Characterisation Team, for Phoenix and MSL, and senior NASA scientist, said.

Addressing mediapersons here Thursday evening, Ghosh said that the Rover, named ‘Curiosity’ is a robot weighing around 899 kgs, with robotic arms measuring around seven feet.

“The mission, slated to land at the Gale Crater, will assess whether the area Curiosity explores has ever been a potential habitat for life on Mars,” Ghosh said.

The targetted site is a 96-mile (154-km) wide basin with a layered mountain of deposits stretching 3 miles above its floor, or twice as tall as the layers of rock in the Grand Canyon.

It will be the first mission since NASA’s 1970s-era Viking Program which attempted to answer the question whether there is life in the universe beyond Earth.

The mission would not answer the crucial question whether life has existed on Mars, Curiosity will not carry experiments to detect active processes that would signify present-day biological metabolism or has the ability to image microorganisms or their fossils, he said.

However, if it finds the Gale Crater site has had conditions favourable for habitability and for preserving evidence about life, it would help shape future mission bring back samples to earth for life-detection tests or even carry advanced life-detection experiments.

The MSL is equipped with 10 science instruments - Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer(APXS), Chemistry and Camera(Chemcam), Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin), Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN) (Russia), Mars Descent Imager (MARDI), Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), Mast Camera (Mastcam), Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD), Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS) (Spain), Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM).

“Expected to shoot off Saturday (Nov. 26), though the conditions would be favourable for a launch till Dec 18, the mission will land on Mars around Aug 5-6, 2012, after travelling 354 million miles,” Ghosh told IANS prior to the briefing.

“This would be equivalent to around 15,000 US-India round trips. Presently the Earth-Mars distance is 127 million km, but at landing it will be 154 km. The expected temperature on Mars during landing would be between minus-90 to 0 degrees Centigrade,” Ghosh said.

Three minutes before landing on Martian soil, the rover will slow its descent with a parachute, use retro rockets mounted around the rim of an upper stage, and in the final few second, the upper stage would act as a sky crane, lowering the upright rover on a tether to the surface of the planet, he explained.

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