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Mars explorer 'Curiosity' set for Saturday launch

NASA's Mars explorer Curiosity, the most capable robotic rover ever built for taking the measure of a planet, is to launch Saturday morning. Curiosity will analyze the layered terrain in Gale Crater to read in its rocks the history of the environment there.

By Staff writer / November 26, 2011

The United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with the NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity stands ready for its launch at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Friday, Nov. 25, 2011. The rocket scheduled to launch Saturday morning will deliver a science laboratory to Mars to study potential habitable environments on the planet.

John Raoux/AP

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NASA's Mars explorer Curiosity, the most capable robotic rover ever built for taking the measure of a planet, is nestled snugly in its protective fairing atop an Atlas V rocket, awaiting a 10:02 launch this morning from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

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Not since the twin Viking landers touched down on the Martian surface in 1976 has an advanced robotic chemistry lab been dispatched to the planet – a sibling of Earth that has captured the human imagination for millenniums.

Unlike Vikings 1 and 2, Curiosity will not hunt for direct evidence of life on Mars. Instead, scientists fielding the Mini Cooper-sized rover with its seven foot "neck" will analyze the layered terrain in Gale Crater to read in its rocks the history of the environment there.

IN PICTURES: Exploring Mars

The crater's rocks show evidence of water in their distant past. And the formations appear to record a progression from wet, to occasionally wet, to dry conditions. Now researchers are hunting for clues about the broader chemical and atmospheric processes affecting the planet during these changes, conditions that could have encouraged or inhibited the possible emergence of life on Mars.

Any life that exists on Mars "will be a function of its environment," says Pamela Conrad, an astrobiologist at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and a deputy principal investigator for one of the soil-analysis instruments Curiosity carries.

"We can't say with any definitive knowledge that we could recognize life somewhere else in the solar system, or beyond the solar system, without being able to unbolt all the assumptions and all the experience we have" looking at life on Earth, Dr. Conrad says.

For Mars, Curiosity represents the tool that will suggest to astrobiologists how loose bolts have to be.      

But first, Curiosity has to get there.

It's a 354-million-mile trip that begins with this morning's lift-off. Once Curiosity reaches space, the craft's Centaur upper stage will ignite and place the craft in a temporary parking orbit around Earth. Roughly 20 minutes later, the upper stage will ignite once more to send Curiosity on its way to Mars.

During the trip, scientists and engineers will make sure the 10 science instruments aboard the rover are working properly, make any course corrections that might be needed to keep Curiosity on the interplanetary not-so-straight but narrow, and plan the early stages of their exploration of Gale Crater.

Over the course of Curiosity's 98-week primary mission, the rover is expected to cover about 12 miles. But mission managers say they expect it to rack up far more than that if the mission receives extensions, according to Peter Theisinger, project manager for the Mars Science Laboratory at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

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