US rover to scout for Mars’ habitability

November 27th, 2011 - 11:07 am ICT by IANS  

Washington, Nov 27 (IANS) A nuclear-powered US rover was launched to help assess Mars’ habitability.

The car-sized rover, atop an Atlas V rocket, blasted off at 10.02 a.m. Saturday from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, Xinhua reported.

“Liftoff of the Atlas V with Curiosity, seeking clues to the planetary puzzle about life on Mars,” said NASA commentator George Diller as the white rocket soared skyward.

The rover, nicknamed Curiosity, will journey for over eight months, covering 556 million km, before touching down on Mars in August 2012.

“A signal from the spacecraft … has been received by officials on the ground,” NASA announced an hour after liftoff.

At nearly a tonne, the six-wheeled vehicle, also known as the Mars Science Laboratory, dwarfs all previous robots sent to the surface of the planet. It is about twice as long and more than five times as heavy as any previous Mars rover.

Its 10 science instruments include two for ingesting and analyzing samples of powdered rock delivered by the rover’s robotic arm.

During a prime mission lasting one Martian year — nearly two Earth years — researchers will use the rover’s tools to study whether the landing region has had environmental conditions favourable for supporting microbial life and favourable for preserving clues about whether life existed.

Curiosity is the first instrument of its kind, and largest, most scientifically capable spacecraft ever destined for the surface of another planet.

It is equipped with a generator that converts heat from the natural decay of a non-weapons-grade plutonium into electricity.

The electricity will power rover systems and keep it warm in an environment where average temperatures are minus 64 degrees Fahrenheit.

The $2.5-billion project “is an incredibly important flagship mission for this agency … as important as Hubble (space telescope),” observed Doug McCuistion, NASA’s Mars exploration program director.

Its launch comes at a time when NASA — still struggling to find its way after the retirement of America’s iconic shuttle fleet — is anxious to exhibit its technological competence and prowess.

Curiosity will land near the base of a layered mountain five kilometers high inside the Gale Crater on Mars. The crater spans an area as large as Connecticut and Rhode Island combined.

Planetary geologists are intrigued because data from the US Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter suggest the low-lying crater floor once was wet with water.

Scientists also think the site might be rife with “organics” — carbonaceous compounds that are key chemical building blocks for life.

Life on Earth emerges when liquid water is combined with a source of energy, such as sunlight, and carbon compounds.

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