MARS Launch Today

Filed under: Florida News,Kennedy Space Center |

A nuke-powered rover the size of a family size compact car will start its journey to Mars this morning.

The Curiosity, NASA’s $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory, is scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at exactly 10:02 a.m. this morning and it hopes to answer the question: Can the Red Planet sustain life?

The rover will be carried 354 million miles to the planet on an unmanned rocket known as the United Launch Alliance Atlas 5. The perilous trek will take 81/2 months, meaning Curiosity is expected to touch down in August 2012.

“This is the most complicated mission we have attempted on the surface of Mars,” said Peter Theisinger, Mars Science Lab project manager with NASA’s prime contractor, Lockheed Martin.

Curiosity weighs 1 ton and has a 7-foot arm that was retrofitted with a jackhammer and a laser so that it can puncture the Martian rock. Scientists say what makes the rover truly unique is its ability to analyze rocks and soil with never-before-seen accuracy.

Curiosity can’t actually detect the presence of living organisms. Instead, the rover will be on the lookout for organic, carbon-containing compounds. In that way, scientists hope to discover whether the planet has — or has ever had — what it takes to nurture life.

Ten feet long, 9 feet wide and 7 feet tall, Curiosity is about twice the size of previous rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. In a space first, Curiosity will be lowered to Mars using a jet pack and a tether system. Curiosity will be “the largest and most complex piece of equipment ever placed on the surface of another planet,” said Doug McCusition, director of NASA’s Mars exploration program.

The journey to Mars is tricky and often proves to be too much for space explorers to complete. More than three dozen missions have attempted to reach the most Earth-like planet in the solar system, but fewer than half have made it. Only one of those — Opportunity — is still working on the barren planet.

More than 13,000 guests are expected at the launch, which will be complicated by the fact the rover is run by 10.6 pounds of plutonium. The plutonium is encased in protective layers in case of an accident, and radiation detectors are expected to take air samples during the launch.

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