NASA successfully launched its “Curiosity” Mars probe from Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 10:02 AM Saturday.The one-ton probe left Earth aboard an unmanned Atlas 5 rocket, reported the Associated Press. More than 13,000 spectators were present to watch the launch of NASA’s first mission to Mars in four years.
Curiosity will take eight and a half months to travel the 354 miles to Mars. It is due to land in a crater on the Red Planet on the morning of August 6, 2012.
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Once there, it will look for signs of Mars’ ability to support microscopic life forms, the BBC said. The rover is equipped with 10 scientific instruments and a mobile laboratory that will allow it to sample and analyse soil and rocks.
That cargo makes Curiosity significantly more advanced than NASA’s previous successful Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, which each carried five scientific instruments on board.
Doug McCuistion, director of NASA’s Mars program, said earlier this month that Curiosity was “not your father’s rover,” reported CBC News:
“It’s truly the largest and most complex piece of equipment ever placed on the surface of another planet, truly a wonder in engineering.
“It bridges the gap from the past decade scientifically to the next decade, from understanding the planet as being warmer and wetter than we had previously believed, to the next decade to try to understand if it was ever habitable.”
The unprecedented size of the new probe — it is as big as a small car — means scientists have had to come up with an innovative way of landing it on Mars, said CBC: it will have to be lowered onto the planet’s surface using a jet-powered skycrane and tethers.
Watch Curiosity blast off:
Curiosity is due to spend a minimum of two years exploring mineral-rich Gale Crater near Mars’ equator, said Reuters.
The probe cost $2.5 billion to develop.
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