Astrobiology Top 10: Mars Mission Lifts Off


NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory, with its Curiosity rover, awaits launch atop an Atlas V rocket at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Image Credit: Pat Corkery, United Launch Alliance

NASA began a historic voyage to Mars with the Nov. 26 launch of the Mars Science Laboratory, which carries a car-sized rover named Curiosity. Liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station aboard an Atlas V rocket occurred at 10:02 a.m. EST (7:02 a.m. PST).

"We are very excited about sending the world’s most advanced scientific laboratory to Mars," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said. "MSL will tell us critical things we need to know about Mars, and while it advances science, we’ll be working on the capabilities for a human mission to the Red Planet and to other destinations where we’ve never been."

The mission will pioneer precision landing technology and a sky-crane touchdown to place Curiosity near the foot of a mountain inside Gale Crater on Aug. 6, 2012. During a nearly two-year prime mission after landing, the rover will investigate whether the region has ever offered conditions favorable for microbial life, including the chemical ingredients for life.

"The launch vehicle has given us a great injection into our trajectory, and we’re on our way to Mars," said Mars Science Laboratory Project Manager Peter Theisinger of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "The spacecraft is in communication, thermally stable and power positive."

The Atlas V initially lofted the spacecraft into Earth orbit and then, with a second burst from the vehicle’s upper stage, pushed it out of Earth orbit into a 352-million-mile (567-million-kilometer) journey to Mars.

"Our first trajectory correction maneuver will be in about two weeks," Theisinger said. "We’ll do instrument checkouts in the next several weeks and continue with thorough preparations for the landing on Mars and operations on the surface."

Curiosity’s ambitious science goals are among the mission’s many differences from earlier Mars rovers. It will use a drill and scoop at the end of its robotic arm to gather soil and powdered samples of rock interiors, then sieve and parcel out these samples into analytical laboratory instruments inside the rover. Curiosity carries 10 science instruments with a total mass 15 times as large as the science-instrument payloads on the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Some of the tools are the first of their kind on Mars, such as a laser-firing instrument for checking the elemental composition of rocks from a distance, and an X-ray diffraction instrument for definitive identification of minerals in powdered samples.

To haul and wield its science payload, Curiosity is twice as long and five times as heavy as Spirit or Opportunity. Because of its one-ton mass, Curiosity is too heavy to employ airbags to cushion its landing as previous Mars rovers could. Part of the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft is a rocket-powered descent stage that will lower the rover on tethers as the rocket engines control the speed of descent.

This artist’s concept depicts the rover Curiosity, of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission, as it uses its Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument to investigate the composition of a rock surface. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The mission’s landing site offers Curiosity access for driving to layers of the mountain inside Gale Crater. Observations from orbit have identified clay and sulfate minerals in the lower layers, indicating a wet history.

Precision landing maneuvers as the spacecraft flies through the Martian atmosphere before opening its parachute make Gale a safe target for the first time. This innovation shrinks the target area to less than one-fourth the size of earlier Mars landing targets. Without it, rough terrain at the edges of Curiosity’s target would make the site unacceptably hazardous.

The innovations for landing a heavier spacecraft with greater precision are steps in technology development for human Mars missions. In addition, Curiosity carries an instrument for monitoring the natural radiation environment on Mars, important information for designing human Mars missions that protect astronauts’ health.

The mission is managed by JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The rover was designed, developed and assembled at JPL. NASA’s Launch Services Program at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida managed the launch. NASA’s Space Network provided space communication services for the launch vehicle. NASA’s Deep Space Network will provide spacecraft acquisition and mission communication.

The Mars Science Laboratory mission is of immense importance to NASA’s astrobiological objectives at Mars, and will help scientists determine whether or not past or present life could have gained a foothold on Mars. The Mars Science Laboratory, along with its Curiosity rover, is truly NASA’s first astrobiology mission since the Viking landers of the 1970s.

NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Image credit: NASA TV/NASA/JPL-Caltech


 Curiosity’s Instrument Package

  • SAM (Gas Chromatograph/Mass Spectrometer) will be able to measure mineralogy, organics and isotopes in rocks, soil and the atmosphere of Mars. SAM will search for a range of compounds of carbon, such as methane, that could be associated with life.
  • The CheMin (Chemistry and Mineralogy) instrument will study minerals in rocks and soil. Minerals are shaped by the conditions in which they form, and studying the minerals in samples can thereby provide evidence of past martian environments.
  • The Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument will vaporize dust from the surface and analyze underlying rock. ChemCam can even analyze samples from a distance.
  • The Mast Camera (MastCam) will take color images and video of the martian surface, providing astrobiologists with a ground-level view of the research site in Gale Crater. This will allow scientists to guide the rover and identify features of interest that provide information about past environmental conditions, and sites that can be examined up close with other instruments.
  • The Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) will provide close-up views of minerals, textures, and structures in rocks, debris, and dust. This will help astrobiologists identify geomorphological evidence of liquid water.
  • MARDI (Mars Descent Imager) will take video during MSL’s descent. This ‘astronaut’ view of the terrain will help scientists identify science targets and guide the rover.
  • RAD (Radiation Assessment Detector) will measure radiation at the surface. This data is useful in determining the current habitability of the martian surface and challenges that could face future human explorers. Radiation will also be a major obstacle for organisms that are used to aid long-duration human missions, such as crops that might be grown for food on Mars.
  • The APSX (Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer) instrument will measure chemical elements in rocks and soils. APSX data will help identify environments that were once exposed to liquid water. APSX was funded through international partnership with the Canadian Space Agency.
  • REMS (Rover Environmental Monitoring Station) is a weather station that will provide data concerning the environment of modern-day Gale Crater. This information will help astrobiologists determine the potential for life on present-day Mars and the conditions that could confront future missions. REMS was funded through international partnership with the Spanish government and the Centro de Astrobiologica in Spain.
  • The DAN (Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons) instrument is able to detect water content in ice and minerals. DAN is also able to search for layers of water and ice up to 2 meters below the surface. Studying the water content of present day Mars can help astrobiologists determine how much water could have been present at the surface on ancient Mars, and where these reservoirs of water have disappeared to today. By searching for water and ice beneath the surface, DAN will also help astrobiologists identify potential environments for extant life on present-day Mars. DAN was funded through international partnership with the Russian Space Agency.
The MSL spacecraft successfully separates from the Atlas V Centaur stage at 44 minutes 6 seconds after launch. Credit: NASA TV


Curiosity is on its way to Mars! The Atlas V has cleared the tower. Credit: NASA/JPL