Today, NASA launched its latest Mars Rover, nicknamed Curiosity, which is headed to explore Mars and hunt for signs that life may have existed on the Red Planet once.
NASA on Saturday launched the six-wheeled, one-armed robotic Mars rover that is the biggest extraterrestrial explorer to date. The Mars Rover took off on its mission from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and is expected to reach the Red Planet in eight months.
According to various reports, the Mars Science Laboratory project has been planned by NASA since 2003, and it was initially expected to launch two years ago, but because it was not ready for liftoff, the mission had to be delayed. The mission of the latest Mars Rover is clear: To study the surface of the planet to determine if it is capable of sustaining life.
It's "really a rover on steroids," said NASA's Colleen Hartman, assistant associate administrator for science. "It's an order of magnitude more capable than anything we have ever launched to any planet in the solar system."
After a partial orbit around Earth, the Mars Rover will travel 354 million miles and land on Mars Aug. 5, 2012 inside a 96-mile-wide impact crater called Gale Crater. Like Spirit and Opportunity, the two smaller rovers sent to Mars in 2004, Curiosity is designed to investigate the Martian surface and provide breakthrough data to the scientists regarding evidence of water, oxygen and methane, key ingredients to life, on the Red Planet.
"This looks like a very promising place, that looks like it had water in its past that would make it a very hospitable place," said Michael Meyer, lead scientist in NASA's Mars Exploration Program.
The specifications of the Mars Rover, called “a Mars scientist’s dream machine,” include the following:
It is 10 feet long, 9 feet wide and 7 feet tall at the top of its mast. The nuclear-powered vehicle is equipped with six-wheel drive that allows it to run over obstacles as tall as 2 feet. The rover’s 7-foot arm has a jackhammer on the end to drill into the Martian red rock, and the 7-foot mast on the rover is topped with high-definition and laser cameras which will be used to break through Mars’ various rocks as it probes Martian soil.
According to the rover’s lead developer, "It's not your father's rover," said Doug McCuistion, director of NASA's Mars program. "It's truly … the largest and most complex piece of equipment ever placed on the surface of another planet."
The world has launched more than three dozen missions to Mars, the Bermuda Triangle of the solar system, yet fewer than half of those quests succeeded.