Thursday, December 13, 2012

Revealing the secrets of the Red Planet: Now car-size rover beside Martian mountain

Undertaking the most complex landing ever attempted in planetary
exploration, NASA successfully placed the most advanced robotic rover
on Mars. The Mars Science Laboratory mission carrying the one-ton
rover named Curiosity, touched down in August. Almost immediately,
Curiosity sent back pictures of its landing site at Gale Crater with
the eventual destination of Mount Sharp in the background. Since
then, Curiosity has checked out its 10 science instruments, sent back
detailed photos and weather observations and "tasted" Martian soil.

Key mission findings during the first three months after the landing
include conglomerate rocks bearing rounded pebbles as evidence of
vigorous ancient stream flow right in the area where Curiosity
landed; mineral composition of Martian soil similar to soils in
Hawaii that contain volcanic glass; and the first assessment of the
natural radiation environment that future astronauts will encounter
on the surface of Mars.

Curiosity's planned two-year prime mission will be to explore and
assess a local region on the surface of Mars as a potential habitat
for life, past or present. In addition, the landing technology for
putting such a large payload safely on the Martian surface could help
with plans for future human Mars missions.

On Dec. 4, 2012 NASA announced plans for a robust multi-year Mars program,
including a new robotic science rover based on the Curiosity design
set to launch in 2020.

The planned portfolio includes the Curiosity
and Opportunity rovers; two NASA spacecraft and contributions to one
European spacecraft currently orbiting Mars; the 2013 launch of the
Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) orbiter to study the
Martian upper atmosphere; the Interior Exploration using Seismic
Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) mission, which
will take the first look into the deep interior of Mars; and
participation in ESA's 2016 and 2018 ExoMars missions, including
providing "Electra" telecommunication radios to ESA's 2016 mission
and a critical element of the premier astrobiology instrument on the
2018 ExoMars rover. With InSight, there will be a total of seven NASA
missions operating or being planned to study and explore our
Earth-like neighbor.

The 2020 mission will constitute another step toward being responsive
to high-priority science goals and the president's challenge of
sending humans to Mars orbit in the 2030s.

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