Mars Curiosity Rover successfully launched

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An Atlas V rocket bearing the Mars Science Laboratory and Curiosity rover launches at 10:02 a.m. EST on November 26, 2011 (Photo: NASA/Darrell L. McCall)

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On Saturday at 10:02 a.m. EST an Atlas V rocket carrying its precious cargo, the Mars Science Laboratory and Curiosity rover, took off successfully from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral. A statement from NASA Project Manager Peter Theisinger confirmed that all had gone according to plan. "The spacecraft is in communication, thermally stable and power positive," he said. "We're on our way to Mars".

Through Friday and into Saturday morning meteorologists had predicated a 70 percent chance of suitable launch conditions, before a one-hour 43-minute launch window was finalized.

A series of updates from the Curiosity rover's official twitter feed documented the build-up to the launch, followed by take off and first stages of its 352-million-mile trip to the red planet that will take more than eight months. "It's a new dawn, it's a new day, and I'm feeeeelin' good" was the message (paraphrasing Nina Simone) as MSL reported a clean bill of health back to NASA after communications had been established six minutes into the mission.

But it wasn't all plain sailing during the mission's first hour, with the Register reporting intermittent interruptions in the reception of MSL telemetry, though the problem seemed to be resolved promptly and with no mission-critical systems affected.

The launch technology that saw Curiosity on its way is an expendable system with two distinct stages. The first, to achieve Earth orbit, utilizes the kerosene and liquid oxygen RD-180 engine of the Atlas V rocket delivering 850,000 pounds of thrust, supplemented by four solid rocket boosters each delivering an additional thrust of 306,000 pounds. After separation from the main rocket, the Centaur-3 upper stage carries the payload out of Earth orbit with the assistance of its liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen RL-10 engine providing another 22,3000 pounds of thrust. Centaur then sets its cargo on course, in this case Gale Crater, Mars, before leaving the payload to its interplanetary cruise.

The Atlas and Centaur systems have been in use, albeit with countless iterative improvements, since the 1950s and 60s and there's something almost poignant that such reliant, tried and tested technology should carry the bleeding edge Curiosity - "the world's most advanced scientific laboratory" according to NASA Administrator, Charles Bolden - into space.

We've discussed the MSL mission in some detail here at Gizmag, but to recap, the purpose of the $2.5 billion mission is, in the words of Project Scientist John Grotzinger at a post-launch briefing, to look for "ancient habitable environments." After a sky-crane enabled touchdown (MSL is too heavy to rely on airbags), Curiosity will begin its two-Earth-year/one-Mars-year mission of drilling and gathering Martian rocks and soils, and analysing them with its suite of ten instruments. Its goal is to seek evidence of life-favoring conditions in the distant past.

All being well, the Curiosity rover will touch down on August 6, 2012. "I think this mission will be a great one", said Grotzinger, "it is an important next step in NASA's overall goal to address the issue of life in the universe." Keep an eye on the Gizmag Mars tag for updates on the Curiosity rover and subsequent Mars missions such as MAVEN in the coming months. Perhaps it won't be too long now before you're reading concrete plans for a manned mission to Mars.

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