Curiosity is on its way to Mars!

Launch of Curiosity on November 26, 2011. Credit: United Launch Alliance

After much anticipation, the Curiosity rover, also known by its more formal name as the Mars Science Laboratory, was successfully launched from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida last Saturday.

The rover is scheduled to land on Mars on August 6, 2012. The landing site, Gale crater, features a 5 kilometre (3 mile) high mountain inside it which is extensively layered, revealing a long expanse of Martian history. Of particular interest are the sedimentary layers near the bottom, composed of phyllosilicates (clays) which should provide further insight into the history of water at this location. The landing site itself is on an ancient alluvial fan, where sediments are thought to have been deposited by water.

About the size of a small car, Curiosity is the largest and most complex rover (or lander for that matter) ever sent to Mars. It’s about twice as long and five times as heavy than the previous two rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. It also features ten scientific instruments including a drill and laser for obtaining and analyzing rock and soil samples and the most advanced on-board laboratory ever sent to another planet.

Artist's conception of Curiosity on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

It should be noted that, contrary to some media stories, Curiosity is not specifically a life-detection mission; it is designed to look for evidence of habitability both now and in the past, as in water activity, environmental conditions, etc. It will look for organic molecules, in particular the kinds that are the building blocks of life as we know it.

After the unfortunate problems with the Russian Phobos-Grunt mission to Mars’ moon Phobos which launched a few days earlier, people held their breath, hoping that this mission would not suffer a similar fate, but so far everything is going pretty much perfectly.

Artist's conception of Curiosity being lowered to the ground using the skycrane tethers and rocket thrusters. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The landing, though, will be another nail-biter. Since the rover is too heavy to land using airbags as with the previous rovers, it will be lowered to the ground using a “skycrane” – hanging from tethers connected to a descent stage which will gently descend using rocket thrusters, placing the rover on the surface and then taking off again. A scary-sounding landing system which hasn’t been used before, although tested extensively for this mission. Let’s hope all goes well…

The official Curiosity web site is here.