Saturday, July 23, 2011

With space shuttle era over, US robot set for Mars

With space shuttle era over, US robot set for Mars WASHINGTON: NASA moved on to a new chapter in space exploration on Friday, a day after the end of its shuttle program, by announcing details of plans to determine if Mars has or ever had the ingredients for life.

Managers at the U.S. space agency said a robotic science laboratory, being prepared for a November 25 launch, will land in August 2012 near a mountain in a crater on the planet most like Earth in the solar system.

NASA announced which crater it has picked for the 2.5 billion dollar Mars rover, Curiosity, to probe for signs of life when the unmanned vehicle is lowered onto the red planet next year.

The six-wheeled mechanical science lab will explore a crater called Gale, which contains a mountain and will help scientists study clay and sulfate deposits at various heights.

"Scientists identified Gale as their top choice to pursue the ambitious goals of this new rover mission," said Jim Green, director for the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

"The site offers a visually dramatic landscape and also great potential for significant science findings."

The unchosen option was a crater called Eberswalde, a clay-bearing site where a river once flowed into a lake.

No one expects the rover, also known as the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), to actually find living beings there, just signs that that some microbial life may have existed in the depths of a crater that may have contained water.

NASA has previously sent the Spirit and Opportunity rovers to explore Mars and has set its sights on sending humans there by 2030. The launch of Curiosity is set for later this year, with its arrival expected in August 2012.

Since it is larger than previous rovers, the car-sized vehicle will be lowered onto Mars with the help of a rocket-powered sky crane.

The announcement of Curiosity's exact destination came 35 years after the first spacecraft, the Viking 1, landed on Mars in July 1976.


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