This morning the massive Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) launched torwards Mars. Scheduled to land in August 2012 the rover will bring a host of scientific instruments to the planet and continue the exploration that started in 1975 with the Viking landers.
Mars Science Laboratory (MSL)
By far the largest rover every launched to another planet the MSL is a risky mission. The rover is five times bigger and carriers more than ten times the mass of scientific instruments than the MER rovers. In additional MSL will attempt the first precision landing on Mars, which will be achieved by a sky crane that will lower the rover to the surface before flying off and crashing into the surface.
Unlike it’s predecessors, which were solar powered, MSL will use an radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs). This will allow the rover to operate day and night and also has the advantage that the heat generated by the process can be used to keep the components warm meaning more electricity will be available to the instruments.
Once on the surface the rover will wake up and begin it’s mission, designed to operate for at least a martian year (668 Martian sols/686 Earth days) MSL will using it’s various scientific instruments to determine the habitability of Mars for microbial life.
MSL is carrying an impressive array of instruments which will enable it to take samples of Martian rocks and analyze them. Rather than repeat the information I have included a link to the Mars Science Laboratory site.
The plan is to land MSL at Gale Crater which spans 96 miles (154 kilometers) in diameter and holds a mountain rising higher from the crater floor than Mount Rainier rises above Seattle. Gale is about the combined area of Connecticut and Rhode Island. Layering in the mound suggests it is the surviving remnant of an extensive sequence of deposits. The crater is named for Australian astronomer Walter F. Gale.
Now all we have to do is wait until next August when Curiosity lands.
1 – http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.cfm?release=2011-222#1