November 26, 2011 8:57 a.m.
“Whew! That felt so good,” exulted Joy Crisp, a deputy project scientist from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in La-Canada Flintridge. “That was spectacular!”
The rocket’s payload was the rover Curiosity, the largest and most sophisticated in a series of robotic vehicles that NASA has landed on Mars. Built at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Curiosity is a six-wheeled, one-ton, car-sized vehicle crammed full of sophisticated scientific gadgets.
Its mission, NASA officials stressed, is not to find life on Mars, but to find out whether life could have existed on Mars in the form of microbes, tiny organisms that are abundant on Earth. It also will try to find further evidence to suggest whether astronauts could survive on Mars.
“I like to say it’s extraterrestrial real estate appraisal,” said Pan Conrad, a JPL astrobiologist, at a prelaunch briefing earlier in the week.
Within hours of takeoff, control of the spaceship was shifting from the Kennedy Space Center to JPL, which will run the mission for its duration, which is expected to be a minimum of two years.
The Mars Science Lab faced a journey of 354 million miles, which it expects to end in spectacular fashion in early August. Because of the size of the rover, NASA decided that its previous technique, in which the vehicles were bounced onto the surface of the planet on air bags, would not work.
So Curiosity, after being slowed in its descent by parachutes, will be lowered softly — NASA hopes —using a sky crane modeled after those used by helicopters.
Once on the ground, NASA intends for the rover to spend one Martian year, which is about two Earth years, exploring an area called Gale Crater, which includes a gently sloped, three-mile-high mountain made of sedimentary rock. As with prior missions, there is the likelihood that the rover will keep going after its two-year “warranty” expires.
Scientists hope that as the rover ascends the mountain, the rock will tell the geologic history of the area, and ideally suggest whether it could have supported life.
“We’re basically reading the history of Mars’ environmental evolution,” said John Grotzinger, the project’s chief scientist. However, he has been at pains to tamp down expectations.
To sustain life, scientists say, a planet needs three elements: water, energy and carbon. The first two have been established as existing on Mars, but previous missions have not allowed scientists to determine whether there is carbon.
“We’re on the hot seat, and a wise friend of mine once told me, ‘don’t promise more than you can deliver,’ ” Grotzinger said. “So we’re on a mission to look for organic carbon, there’s no question about it.”
But he downplayed the odds of success. “It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack, and the haystack’s as big as a football field.”
The Mars Science Lab is the latest in a long series of U.S. missions to Mars, dating to 1964, when Mariner 4 flew by the planet and returned 21 photos to Earth. More recently, the Pathfinder, Exploration and Opportunity missions landed robotic rovers that have sent back dramatic ground-level photos and other data about the planet, which is considered the most likely planet other than Earth to have nurtured life.
By “life,” however, scientists stress that they are considering the most primitive forms, and don’t expect Curiosity to be met by an ambassador.
At the same time, said Steven Benner, a biochemist who heads the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution, “We don’t want to have a lot of preconceptions. We want to consider that if, you know, Tim Allen’s “Galaxy Quest” alien rock creature comes up and bangs us on the head, we don’t want to ignore it. That would be the ‘Ah ha!’ moment that we would regret having missed. But that’s relatively far down in our what-if scenarios.”
story from and video at: http://www.latimes.com/news/science/la-me-adv-mars-launch-20111127,0,1070468.story
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