The Curiosity rover will explore the 154km-wide Gale Crater. Image: NASA/JPL
This weekend one of the most scientifically important rocket launches in recent history is set to take place.
If all goes well and the weather is favourable, then the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission will blast off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, on an Atlas V rocket.
NASA has given the go ahead for a launch window starting on Saturday 26 November, from 10:02 to 11:45 EST (15.02 to 16:45 UT), extending through to 18 December.
With only a 30 per cent chance of adverse weather conditions delaying the launch, there’s every possibility that the $2.3 billion MSL mission and its Curiosity rover will begin its journey through space, on time to land on the Red Planet in August 2012.
The launch is the culmination of years of preparation and testing for a mission involving the most advanced rover ever delivered to another world.
The Curiosity rover is five times the size of its predecessors Spirit and Opportunity, with a payload of 10 scientific instruments weighing 15 times as much.
It’s because of this extra weight that the mission will employ a radically different landing method to those used by previous planetary missions.
Instead of using airbags to break its fall onto the Red Planet, Curiosity will be lowered to the surface by the jet pack-like ‘Sky Crane’.
It will be the first ever precision landing on another planet – a major stepping stone for future manned missions to Mars.
The rover will study the rich geological history of the 154km-wide impact crater Gale.
Its nuclear power source should keep it operational for just over a Martian year (686 Earth days), in which time it’s hoped that it will reveal, among other things, whether the Red Planet has ever been an environment conducive to life.
NASA Television will be covering every aspect of the launch on 26 November, with live coverage starting at 7:30 EST (12:30 UT).
You can watch streaming video of the launch on NASA Television:
The launch coverage will also be streamed live on Ustream:
You can also follow the Curiosity rover on Twitter (@MarsCuriosity).
Following a successful launch, the following sequence of events will take place:
One minute and 52 seconds after launch – the four solid rocket boosters are jettisoned.
Three minutes and 25 seconds after launch – the nose cone, or fairing, carrying Mars Science Laboratory will open like a clamshell and fall away before the rocket’s first stage cuts off and drops into the Atlantic Ocean.
Four minutes and 38 seconds after launch – the rocket’s second stage, a Centaur engine, is started for the first time.
After a burn of seven minutes it will place the rocket in a parking orbit around Earth where it remains from 14 minutes and 30 seconds, depending on the launch date and time.
En route to Mars
A second Centaur burn, continuing for nearly eight minutes, lofts the spacecraft out of Earth orbit and sends it toward Mars.
About 44 minutes after launch – Mars Science Laboratory will separate from the rocket that boosted it toward Mars.
Sending a message
About 55 minutes after launch – the spacecraft sends a message of good health to NASA engineers.