For NASA's rover Curiosity, it's 'Mars or Bust!'
NASA's rover Curiosity lifted off Saturday for its 354-million-mile cruise to Mars. After its nearly nine-month trip, the six-wheeled robot will descend to begin studying the environment for a better understanding of the red planet's history.
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An Atlas V rocket carrying the one-ton rover to the red planet lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center at 10:02 a.m. Eastern Standard Time Saturday morning in a flawless launch.
Some 45 minutes later, a video camera aboard the rocket's upper stage captured farewell footage of the lander and its cruise stage as the package separated and headed for Mars.
A short time later, the payload phoned home to report that all its systems are functioning well.
"Ecstatic is the word," said Doug McCuistion, who heads NASA's Mars exploration program, when asked for his reaction during a post-launch press briefing. "We have started a new era of exploration of Mars with this mission."
Up to now, NASA's program has focused on "following the water" with missions designed to reconstruct from the planet's minerals the history of a liquid essential to life as researchers currently understand it.
But water alone isn't enough, researchers say. Other environmental conditions come into play, conditions that govern the ability of organic building blocks for life to remain stable on the surface or underground, for instance.
The record of environmental conditions early in the planet's history, when it was thought to have been at its wettest, is believed to be written in the layers of rock the Mars Science Laboratory's team has identified in Gale Crater, a 100-mile-wide impact feature with a mountain that soars three miles high from the center of the crater's floor.
After an eight-and-a-half-month cruise, a nail-biting final descent aims to place the six-wheeled robotic chemist squarely in the crater.
If all goes well, Curiosity will initially spend 98 weeks traversing some 12 miles or more – driving, drilling, then analyzing the drill tailings to help build a picture of the environments that existed at the location as the planet made the transition from a wet planet, to a periodically wet planet, to the desiccated orb humans are visiting today.
"This mission is an important next step in addressing the issue of life in the universe," says John Grotzinger, a planetary scientist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif., and the project scientist for the Mars Science Laboratory.