Saturday, November 26, 2011
NASA launches $2.5 billion MSL mission to Red Planet
Liftoff! NASA’s $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory mission is on the way to the red planet after a seemingly perfect launch under cloudy Florida skies this morning. At 10:02 a.m. ET a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket roared off the pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station – the departure on a 354-million mile journey that is expected to arrive at Mars in August.
The launch of the mission and the highly advanced car-sized Curiosity rover attracted a large crowd in and around Kennedy Space Center, with more than 19,000 viewing the launch onsite and thousands more from vantage points around the area.
Joy Crisp a deputy project scientist for the rover at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., called the liftoff "spectacular."
"This feels great," she said as she watched the rocket lift off from Cape Canaveral.
Pamela Conrad, deputy principal investigator for the mission at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., said, "Every milestone feels like such a relief. It's a beautiful day. The sun's out, and all these people came out to watch."
The work Curiosity does when it finally arrives should revolutionize our understanding of the Red Planet and pave the way for future efforts to hunt for potential Martian life, researchers said.
"It is absolutely a feat of engineering, and it will bring science like nobody's ever expected," Doug McCuistion, head of NASA's Mars exploration program, said of Curiosity. "I can't even imagine the discoveries that we're going to come up with."
This mission has been more than 10 years in the making and the launch was delayed by more than two-years after an optimal window passed in 2009 when the craft was still not ready to be launched. Again, Space.com explains:
Curiosity's cruise to Mars may be less challenging than its long and bumpy trek to the launch pad, which took nearly a decade. NASA began planning Curiosity's mission — which is officially known as the Mars Science Laboratory, or MSL — back in 2003. The rover was originally scheduled to blast off in 2009, but it wasn't ready in time.
Launch windows for Mars-bound spacecraft are based on favorable alignments between Earth and the Red Planet, and they open up just once every two years. So the MSL team had to wait until 2011. That two-year slip helped boost the mission's overall cost by 56 percent, to its current $2.5 billion. But Saturday's successful launch likely chased away a lot of the bad feelings still lingering after the delay and the cost overruns.
"I think you could visibly see the team morale improve — the team grinned more, the team smiled more — as the rover and the vehicle came closer, and more and more together here when we were at Kennedy [Space Center]" preparing for liftoff, MSL project manager Pete Theisinger of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory said a few days before launch.
Many aspects about the mission are unique including the scientific instruments on the plutonium powered rover, which should clock about 12-miles on the odometer in explorations around the Gale Crater landing site. The arrival on Mars will also be ambitious. Unlike the previous Mars rovers, Curiosity is too bulky to depend on air bags to cushion it’s landing. Instead it will be lowered by a jet-pack like descent stage from which it will be suspended by cables.
The coverage by Space.com’s Mike Wall includes many links to other mission related articles and an 800-kb PDF file about the mission.