Video: Multimillion-mile Mars journey begins

  1. Transcript of: Multimillion-mile Mars journey begins

    LESTER HOLT, anchor: The folks at NASA are calling it the monster truck of Mars . And tonight the world's biggest extraterrestrial explorer is on its way to the red planet . For NASA , this new mission in search of life carries high hopes and high risks. NBC 's Tom Costello has our report.

    Offscreen Voice: Five, four, three, two, one...

    TOM COSTELLO reporting: With the Saturn Five liftoff at the Kennedy Space Center , NASA has launched its most sophisticated and ambitious mission to Mars yet. Just traveling the 154 million miles to the red planet will take more than eight months. Then next August, a high-risk landing as a supersonic parachute slows the science lab 's descent to Mars . Sixty feet above the planet, a sky crane will gently lower the rover named Curiosity onto the Martian surface, leaving Curiosity on its own to begin looking for signs of life, past or present.

    Ms. PAMELA CONRAD (Astrobiologist): Do we anticipate that we'll learn a whole lot about Mars ? Absolutely. Do we know what specifically that will be? No clue.

    COSTELLO: Curiosity is a six-wheeled rover standing more than six feet tall, able to drive long distances under a hot Martian sun, analyzing rock and soil samples and then transmitting those findings back to Earth . NASA has carefully selected the landing zone on Mars in the Gale Crater , where a huge mountain rises right out of the crater floor. Scientists believe they see layers of sedimentary deposit here that they hope will help them understand more about Mars ' history, but also what happened to the lakes and rivers.

    Mr. BRIAN HYNEK: This is Gale Crater .

    COSTELLO: Brian Hynek is a planetary science professor and Mars expert at the University of Colorado . The evidence he says now seems clear that Mars once had a very warm and wet environment.

    Mr. HYNEK: Microbial life could've persisted for hundreds of millions of years on ancient Mars and perhaps even today.

    COSTELLO: And that possibility poses a big problem. NASA has gone to great lengths to ensure Curiosity doesn't carry any Earth germs that could contaminate life on Mars . High resolution cameras have already detected what appear to be large ice sheets buried under the Martian surface. Curiosity 's mission, to determine whether life is or ever was buried there, too. Tom Costello, NBC News, Washington.

By
updated 11/26/2011 9:24:45 PM ET 2011-11-27T02:24:45

NASA has launched its next Mars rover, kicking off a long-awaited mission to investigate whether the Red Planet could ever have hosted microbial life.

The car-size Curiosity rover blasted off atop its Atlas 5 rocket at 10:02 a.m. ET Saturday, streaking into a cloudy sky above Cape Canaveral Air Force Station here. The huge robot's next stop is Mars, though the 354-million-mile (570-million-kilometer) journey will take eight and a half months.

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Joy Crisp a deputy project scientist for the rover at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., called the liftoff "spectacular."

"This feels great," she said as she watched the rocket lift off from Cape Canaveral.

Pamela Conrad, deputy principal investigator for the mission at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., said, "Every milestone feels like such a relief. It's a beautiful day. The sun's out, and all these people came out to watch."

The work Curiosity does when it finally arrives should revolutionize our understanding of the Red Planet and pave the way for future efforts to hunt for potential Martian life, researchers said.

"It is absolutely a feat of engineering, and it will bring science like nobody's ever expected," Doug McCuistion, head of NASA's Mars exploration program, said of Curiosity. "I can't even imagine the discoveries that we're going to come up with." [Photos: Last Look at Curiosity Rover]

Long road to launch
Curiosity's cruise to Mars may be less challenging than its long and bumpy trek to the launch pad, which took nearly a decade.

NASA began planning Curiosity's mission — which is officially known as the Mars Science Laboratory, or MSL — back in 2003. The rover was originally scheduled to blast off in 2009, but it wasn't ready in time.

Launch windows for Mars-bound spacecraft are based on favorable alignments between Earth and the Red Planet, and they open up just once every two years. So the MSL team had to wait until 2011.

That two-year slip helped boost the mission's overall cost by 56 percent, to its current $2.5 billion. But Saturday's successful launch likely chased away a lot of the bad feelings still lingering after the delay and the cost overruns.

"I think you could visibly see the team morale improve — the team grinned more, the team smiled more — as the rover and the vehicle came closer, and more and more together here when we were at Kennedy [Space Center]" preparing for liftoff, MSL project manager Pete Theisinger of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory said a few days before launch.

A rover behemoth
Curiosity is a beast of a rover. Weighing in at 1 ton, it's five times more massive than either of the last two rovers NASA sent to Mars, the golf-cart-size twins Spirit and Opportunity, which landed in 2004 to search for signs of past water activity.

While Spirit and Opportunity each carried five science instruments, Curiosity sports 10, including a rock-zapping laser and equipment designed to identify organic compounds — carbon-based molecules that are the building blocks of life as we know it.

Some of these instruments sit at the end of Curiosity's five-jointed, 7-foot-long (2.1-meter) robotic arm, which by itself is nearly half as heavy as Spirit or Opportunity.

NASA / JPL-Caltech
NASA's $2.5 billion Curiosity rover will work hard to reconstruct and investigate ancient environments, because Martian life likely had a better shot at gaining a foothold long ago, researchers say.

The arm also wields a 2-inch (5-centimeter) drill, allowing Curiosity to take samples from deep inside Martian rocks. No previous Red Planet rover has been able to do this, researchers say.

"We have an incredible rover," said MSL deputy project scientist Ashwin Vasavada of JPL. "It's the biggest and most capable scientific explorer we've ever sent to the surface of another planet."

Learn more about Curiosity's mission (800kb PDF)

Curiosity is due to arrive at Mars in early August 2012, touching down in a 100-mile-wide (160-km) crater called Gale.

While the rover's launch was dramatic, its landing will be one for the record books, if all goes well. A rocket-powered sky crane will lower the huge robot down on cables — a maneuver never tried before in the history of planetary exploration. [Video: Curiosity's Peculiar Landing]

A giant mound of sediment rises 3 miles (5 kilometers) into the Martian air from Gale Crater's center. The layers in this mountain appear to preserve about 1 billion years of Martian history. Curiosity will study these different layers, gaining an in-depth understanding of past and present Martian environments and their potential to harbor life.

Life as we know it depends on liquid water. So the rover will likely spend a lot of time poking around near the mound's base, where Mars-orbiting spacecraft have spotted minerals that form in the presence of water, such as clays and sulfates.

"Going layer by layer, we can do the main goal of this mission, which is to search for habitable environments, " Vasavada said. "Were any of those time periods in early Mars history time periods that could have supported microbial life?"

If Curiosity climbs higher, its observations could shed light on Mars' shift from relatively warm and wet long ago to cold, dry and dusty today, researchers said.

"We want to understand those transitions, so that's why we're headed there [to Gale]," said Bethany Ehlmann of JPL and Caltech in Pasadena.

Setting the stage for life detection
Curiosity isn't designed to search for Martian life. In fact, if the red dirt of Gale Crater does harbor microbes, the rover will almost certainly drive right over them unawares.

But MSL is a key bridge to future efforts that could actively hunt down possible Martian life forms, researchers said. Curiosity's work should help later missions determine where — and when — to look.

"We don't really detect life per se," Vasavada said. "We set the stage for that life detection by figuring out which time periods in early Mars history were the most likely to have supported life and even preserved evidence of that for us today."

You can follow Space.com senior writer Mike Wall on Twitter: @michaeldwall. Follow Space.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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Photos: Mars Curiosity rover

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  1. A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover lifts off from Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Saturday, Nov. 26, 2011. (Terry Renna / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. The Mars Science Laboratory, and accompanying Atlas V rocket, is hoisted into place at Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. (Kim Shiflett / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. NASA technicians look over the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover during inspections at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. NASA technicians examine the wheels of the Mars Science Laboratory rover. (Dutch Slager / NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Technicians examine the turret at the end of the Mars Science Laboratory's arm. The turret weighs 73 pounds and holds the machines that will touch the rocks and soil on Mars. (Frankie Martin / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. The Mars Science Laboratory's Entry, Descent and Landing Instrument will measure heat shield temperatures and atmospheric pressures during the spacecraft's high-speed, extremely hot entry into the Martian atmosphere. (Lockheed Martin) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. NASA engineers stand by Mars Science Laboratory's aeroshell, a conical shell that will help protect the rover Curiosity, a robot the size of a car, from the searing temperatures of atmospheric entry when it lands on Mars, shown at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., Monday, April 4. (Damian Dovarganes / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. National Aeronautics and Space Administration NASA mega-rover, Curiosity's wheels and suspension are shown at the Mars Science Laboratory. Technicians, dressed in protective suits, has been working around the clock inside a clean room at the JPL assembling the craft, testing its science instruments, before shipping it off to Florida for launch later this year. (Damian Dovarganes / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. There are 10 instruments on board Curiosity that can analyze samples to help determine if the Red Planet is or has ever been "favorable" to microbial life, according to NASA.

    See more close-up Curiosity pics by Joseph Linaschke at Boing Boing (Joseph Linaschke / photojoseph.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA engineers work on Curiosity, a mega-rover at the Mars Science Laboratory. (Damian Dovarganes / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. NASA Mars Curiosity's mega-rover's Mars Science Laboratory Mast Camera is seen at the Mars Science Laboratory, at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. (Damian Dovarganes / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Curiosity's wheels are individually powered, and enable the mega-rover to turn 360 degrees while staying in place.

    See more close-up Curiosity pics by Joseph Linaschke at Boing Boing (Joseph Linaschke / photojoseph.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. NASA engineers work on Curiosity. Last month, the mega-rover was subjected to "near-vacuum pressure," according to NASA, with temperatures colder than minus-200 degrees Fahrenheit, in order to simulate the environmental stresses of the Martian surface. (Damian Dovarganes / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image:
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    Above: Slideshow (13) Mars Curiosity rover
  2. AURA / STSCI / NASA
    Slideshow (24) The greatest hits from Mars
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    Slideshow (12) Month in Space: January 2014

Explainer: 11 amazing things the Mars rover can do

  • The car-sized Curiosity rover is a 1-ton robotic beast that will take planetary exploration to the next level.

    Curiosity rover is the centerpiece of NASA's $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory. Its main goal is to assess whether the Red Planet is, or ever was, capable of supporting microbial life. The rover will employ 10 different science instruments to help it answer this question once it touches down on the Red Planet. Here's a brief rundown of these instruments (and one more on the rover's heat shield).

    — Mike Wall, Space.com

  • Mast Camera (MastCam)

    T.A. Dutch Slager / NASA / JPL-Caltech
    This view of the Curiosity rover's remote sensing mast shows the ChemCam in the white box at top, and the two cameras of the Mastcam system just below. Additional navigation cameras are placed farther outward from the Mastcam cameras.

    The MastCam is Curiosity's workhorse imaging tool. It will capture high-resolution color pictures and video of the Martian landscape, which scientists will study and laypeople will gawk at.

    MastCam consists of two camera systems mounted on a mast that rises above Curiosity's main body, so the instrument will have a good view of the Red Planet environment as the rover chugs through it. MastCam images will also help the mission team drive and operate Curiosity. (Photos of NASA's Curiosity Rover)

  • Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI)

    NASA / JPL-Caltech
    The Curiosity rover's Mars Hand Lens Imager will acquire color close-up images of rocks and surface materials. A Swiss Army knife is shown for scale.

    MAHLI will function much like a high-powered magnifying glass, allowing Earthbound scientists to get up-close looks at Martian rocks and soil. The instrument will take color pictures of features as tiny as 12.5 microns — smaller than the width of a human hair.

    MAHLI sits on the end of Curiosity's five-jointed, 7-foot (2.1-meter) robotic arm, which is itself a marvel of engineering. So mission scientists will be able to point their high-tech hand lens pretty much wherever they want.

  • Mars Descent Imager (MARDI)

    NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS
    The Mars Descent Imager is flying on the Curiosity rover. A Swiss Army knife is included in the picture for purposes of showing scale.

    MARDI, a small camera located on Curiosity's main body, will record video of the rover's descent to the Martian surface (which will be accomplished with the help of a hovering, rocket-powered sky crane). (Video: Curiosity's Peculiar Landing)

    MARDI will click on a mile or two above the ground, as soon as Curiosity jettisons its heat shield. The instrument will then take video at five frames per second until the rover touches down. The footage will help the MSL team plan Curiosity's Red Planet rovings, and it should also provide information about the geological context of the landing site, the 100-mile-wide (160-km) Gale Crater.

  • Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM)

    NASA / JPL-Caltech
    This illustration of the mechanical configuration of the SAM shows the three instruments and several elements of the Chemical Separation and Processing Laboratory.

    SAM is the heart of Curiosity; at 83 pounds (38 kilograms), it makes up about half of the rover's science payload.

    SAM is actually a suite of three separate instruments — a mass spectrometer, a gas chromatograph and a laser spectrometer. These instruments will search for carbon-containing compounds, the building blocks of life as we know it. They will also look for other elements associated with life on Earth, such as hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen.

    The SAM instrument suite is located in Curiosity's main body. The rover's robotic arm will drop samples into SAM via an inlet on the rover's exterior. Some of these samples will come from the interior of rocks, powder bored out by a 2-inch (5-centimeter) drill situated at the end of the arm.

    None of Curiosity's predecessors could get deep into Martian rocks, so scientists are excited about the drill.

    "For a geologist that studies rocks, there's nothing better than getting inside," said MSL deputy project scientist Joy Crisp, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

  • Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin)

    NASA / JPL-Caltech
    Clean-room workers carefully steer the hoisted CheMin instrument toward its installation into the Curiosity rover.

    CheMin will identify different types of minerals on Mars and quantify their abundance, which will help scientists better understand past environmental conditions on the Red Planet.

    Like SAM, CheMin has an inlet on Curiosity's exterior to accept samples delivered by the rover's robotic arm. The instrument will shine a fine X-ray beam through the sample, identifying minerals' crystalline structures based on how the X-rays diffract.

    "This is like magic to us," Crisp told Space.com. X-ray diffraction is a leading diagnostic technique for Earthbound geologists, she explained, but it hasn't made it to Mars yet. So CheMin should help Curiosity provide more definitive mineral characterizations than previous Mars rovers such as Spirit and Opportunity have been able to achieve.

  • Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam)

    NASA / JPL-Caltech
    An artist's conception shows the Curiosity rover's ChemCam firing its laser at Martian rock.

    For sheer coolness, it's tough to beat ChemCam. This instrument will fire a laser at Martian rocks from up to 30 feet (9 meters) away and analyze the composition of the vaporized bits.

    ChemCam will thus enable Curiosity to study rocks that are out of reach of its flexible robotic arm. It will also help the mission team determine from afar whether or not they want to send the rover over to investigate a particular landform.

    ChemCam is composed of several different parts. The laser sits on Curiosity's mast, along with a camera and a small telescope. Three spectrographs sit in the rover's body, connected to the mast components by fiber optics. The spectrographs will analyze the light emitted by excited electrons in the vaporized rock samples.

  • Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS)

    NASA / JPL-Caltech
    The sensor head for the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer is installed during testing. The head is 7.8 centimeters or about 3 inches tall.

    APXS, which sits at the end of Curiosity's arm, will measure the abundances of various chemical elements in Martian rocks and dirt.

    Curiosity will place the instrument in contact with samples of interest, and APXS will shoot out X-rays and helium nuclei. This barrage will knock electrons in the sample out of their orbits, causing a release of X-rays. Scientists will be able to identify elements based on the characteristic energies of these emitted X-rays.

    Spirit and Opportunity were outfitted with a previous version of APXS and used the instrument to help elucidate the prominent role water has played in shaping the Martian landscape. (Latest Mars Photos From Spirit and Opportunity)

  • Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN)

    NASA / JPL-Caltech / Roscosmos
    This diagram shows how the Detector of Albedo Neutrons could be used to sense the presence of subsurface water on Mars.

    DAN, located near the back of Curiosity's main body, will help the rover search for ice and water-logged minerals beneath the Martian surface.

    The instrument will fire beams of neutrons at the ground, then note the speed at which these particles travel when they bounce back. Hydrogen atoms tend to slow neutrons down, so an abundance of sluggish neutrons would signal underground water or ice.

    DAN should be able to map out water concentrations as low as 0.1 percent at depths up to 6 feet (2 m).

  • Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD)

    NASA / JPL-Caltech
    The RAD instrument is mounted just below the Curiosity rover's top deck, with the charged particle telescope pointing toward the zenith.

    The toaster-size RAD is designed specifically to help prepare for future human exploration of Mars. The instrument will measure and identify high-energy radiation of all types on the Red Planet, from fast-moving protons to gamma rays.

    RAD's observations will allow scientists to determine just how much radiation an astronaut would be exposed to on Mars. This information could also help researchers understand how much of a hurdle Mars' radiation environment might have posed to the origin and evolution of life on the Red Planet.

  • Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS)

    NASA
    This diagram shows the location of the REMS booms on the rover's mast, plus detailed views showing the location of wind, humidity and temperature sensors.

    This tool, which sits partway up Curiosity's mast, is a Martian weather station. REMS will measure atmospheric pressure, humidity, wind speed and direction, air temperature, ground temperature and ultraviolet radiation.

    All of this information will be integrated into daily and seasonal reports, allowing scientists to get a detailed look at the Martian environment.

  • MSL Entry, Descent and Landing Instrumentation (MEDLI)

    Lockheed Martin
    The MEDLI instrument package is the black box in the middle left of this photo, which shows the heatshield for the Mars Science Laboratory.

    MEDLI isn't one of Curiosity's 10 instruments, since it was built into the heat shield that protected the rover during its descent through the Martian atmosphere. But it's worth a few words here.

    MEDLI measured the temperatures and pressures that the heat shield experienced as the MSL spacecraft streaked through the Martian sky. This information can tell engineers how well the heat shield, and their models of the spacecraft's trajectory, performed.

    Researchers will use MEDLI data to improve designs for future Mars-bound spacecraft.

    You can follow Space.com senior writer Mike Wall on Twitter: @michaeldwall. Follow Space.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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