We’re on our way to Mars!

The Mars mission rockets skyward after this morning's successful launch. Credit: NASA

Curiosity Rover is on its way to Mars! The Mars Science Laboratory mission launched successfully right on schedule this morning at 9:02 a.m. CST. The Atlas V rocket sent the probe a parking orbit around Earth; a second firing of the upper stage then propelled the probe on its 352 million mile journey to Mars. It will arrive August 6, 2012, enter the Martian atmosphere and deploy parachutes and a special descent stage that will gently lower the rover onto the surface.

The rover begins its studies a short distance from a mountain in the center of Gale Crater in the planet’s equatorial region. There it will zap rocks with lasers and scoop up samples of soil and analyze them in a miniature laboratory looking for water and organic compounds.

Mars on Nov. 18 shows the dark, Africa-shaped marking called Syrtis Major (right of center) and the North Polar cap made of mostly "dry ice" or frozen CO2. Credit: Damian Peach

During its nearly two-year prime mission after landing, Curiosity will use 10 science instruments¬† “to investigate whether the region has ever offered conditions favorable for microbial life, including the chemical ingredients for life,” according to NASA.¬† Mission control is in communication with the probe. Over the next few weeks they’ll be checking out the instruments and performing a planned course correction maneuver. For more about the mission, click HERE. You’ll find additional updates HERE.

Meanwhile the Russian Mars craft Phobos-Grunt remains stuck in Earth orbit with only sporadic communications with ground control. No word yet on why the rockets that would have sent it to Mars failed to fire. The Phobos mission window has closed, but there is hope the probe can be re-purposed for another mission.

The tender lunar crescent and planet Venus this evening. Created with Stellarium

We’ve got a rainy-snowy day here in Duluth, Minnesota, but if it were clear tonight, I’d be watching the very thin crescent moon woo Venus in the southwestern sky at dusk. Let’s hope you have better weather. Look very low in the southwest about 15 minutes or so after sunset. Once you’ve found the moon, Venus is just a few degrees to the left or east. The pairing will be even closer for folks living on the West Coast and Hawaii.

Mars Science Lab mission blast-off and rocket separation

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About astrobob

My name is Bob King and I work at the Duluth News Tribune in Duluth, Minn. as a photographer and photo editor. I'm also an amateur astronomer and have been keen on the sky since age 11. My modest credentials include membership in the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) where I'm a regular contributor, International Meteorite Collectors Assn. and Arrowhead Astronomical Society. I also teach community education astronomy classes at our local planetarium.

6 thoughts on “We’re on our way to Mars!

    • Hi Carol,
      Nice to hear from you. With no imaginary disaster scenarios of late, it’s been quiet around here. I also hope all goes well with Curiosity. The next big step will be the landing, which is a brilliant concept but more complicated than other Mars’ landings.

          • Yes, I imagine that 2012 will be the next big non-event…..provided nothing else happens in the meantime. After all, Elenin turned out not to be a spaceship, and YU55 didn’t crash into the moon.

            What dastardly news is a fearmonger to grab onto, meanwhile? Ah, yes – Phobos-Grunt of course! It’s going to fall back on Earth and spray us all with toxic fuel! Arghhh! That is, of course, unless the Nazis in space have ‘secretly’ rescued it and diverted it to where it was ‘supposed’ to go after all – to YU55, of course!

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