The Mars Science Laboratory mission lifted off successfully today at around 10 am EST, bound for a landing on the Red Planet planned for August of 2012. The above link has all the details, but in a nutshell, this is a very exciting mission, technologically a leap forward compared to past Mars landers.
Some factoid highlights:
- The Curiosity rover, at nearly one ton (over 900 kilograms), will be the largest object to ever land on Mars, outweighing even the Viking landers by over 500 pounds (226 kilograms). For comparison, the Spirit and Opportunity rovers weigh in at 408 pounds (185 kilograms) each.
- The rover itself has a unique landing system that's never been tried before: it will be lowered to the surface by cables from a "skycrane," a sort of hovering framework of rockets that will gently set the lander down, then fly away to clear the area. Is that cool or what?
- The landing system should be able to land within a 20-kilometer-wide ellipse. This compares to past rovers that had to be set out "on the open plains" with a probable landing ellipse about 150 kilometers wide.
- This accuracy will allow the rover to safely land near some rough terrain, a place known as Gale's crater, which is of interest to scientists as it's expected to have varied rock strata visible (much like the Grand Canyon lets us see old rock layers going back hundreds of millions of years)
- The Curiosity is powered by 2 plutonium RTGs. Unlike the solar panels of past rovers, this will give it over 200 watts of power, 24/7, with no interruption from nightfall or dust storms.
- It carries over 180 pounds of instruments, including a stereo mast cam, a landing camera that will take images and video of the area as the rover descends, and the "ChemCam," which targets rocks with a 10 megawatt laser pulse and analyzes the chemical composition of the vaporized material.
- Pew pew pew!
Hat tip to NASA (obviously)