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U.S. NASA science lab rover launches on Mars mission

posted 26 Nov 2011, 10:40 by Mpelembe   [ updated 26 Nov 2011, 10:41 ]

NASA launches a rocket carrying a a nuclear powered rover to Mars to see if the planet is or ever was suitable for life.

CAPE CANAVERAL, FLORIDA, UNITED STATES (NOVEMBER 26, 2011) (NASA)-- An unmanned Atlas 5 rocket carrying a $2.5 billion NASA Mars probe lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Saturday (November 26).

The Mars Science Laboratory, a nuclear-powered rover as big as a compact car and nicknamed Curiosity, is scheduled to touch down on the 'Red Planet' on Aug. 6, 2012, and will search for signs of whether it is or ever was suitable for life.

The launch of NASA's $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory took place at for 10:02 a.m. EST (1502 GMT) from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, located just south of the Kennedy Space Center.

The mission is the first since NASA's 1970s-era Viking program to directly tackle the age-old question of whether there is life in the universe beyond Earth.

The consensus of scientists after experiments by the twin Viking landers was that life did not exist on Mars. Two decades later, NASA embarked on a new strategy to find signs of past water on Mars, realizing the question of life could not be examined without a better understanding of the planet's environment.

Without a large enough moon to stabilize its tilt, Mars has undergone dramatic climate changes over the eons as its spin axis wobbled closer or farther from the sun.

The history of what happened on Mars during those times is chemically locked in its rocks, including whether liquid water and other ingredients believed necessary for life existed on the planet's surface, and if so, for how long.

The new rover, nicknamed Curiosity, shifts the hunt to other elements key to life, particularly organics.

The spacecraft, which is designed to last two years, is outfitted with 10 tools to analyze one particularly alluring site on Mars called Gale Crater. The site is a 96-mile

(154-kilometer) wide basin that has a layered mountain of deposits stretching 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) above its floor, twice as tall as the layers of rock in the Grand Canyon.

Scientists do not know how the mound formed but suspect it is the eroded remains of sediment that once completely filled the crater.

Curiosity's toolkit includes a robotic arm with a drill, onboard chemistry labs to analyze powdered samples and a laser that can pulverize rock and soil samples from a distance of 20 feet (6 meters) away.

Instead of solar power, Curiosity is equipped with a plutonium battery that generates electricity from the heat of radioactive decay.