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.
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.
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