Atlas V rocket launches a mission to Mars


NASACAPE CANAVERAL – This morning the launch of an Atlas V rocket on a mission to Mars marks the start of a historic voyage. The launch of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), which carries a car-sized rover named Curiosity takes NASA and the Canadian Space Agency into space. Liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station aboard an Atlas V rocket occurred at 10:02 a.m. EST.

“We are very excited about sending the world’s most advanced scientific laboratory to Mars,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said. “MSL will tell us critical things we need to know about Mars, and while it advances science, we’ll be working on the capabilities for a human mission to the Red Planet and to other destinations where we’ve never been.”

The mission will pioneer precision landing technology and a sky-crane touchdown to place Curiosity near the foot of a mountain inside Gale Crater on Aug. 6, 2012. During a nearly two-year prime mission after landing, the rover will investigate whether the region has ever offered conditions favorable for microbial life, including the chemical ingredients for life.

The launch is also one that the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) pleased to see, as there is a Canadian component to this mission.

Canada is Mars bound once again with the launch of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 10:02 a.m. Eastern. The mission carries a Canadian science instrument known as the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS), which will probe the chemistry of rocks and soils on Mars to help determine if the Red Planet ever was, or could still be today, an environment able to support microbial life.

“Canada’s contribution to this mission is a tremendous showcase of technological innovation,” said the Honourable Christian Paradis, Minister of Industry and Minister responsible for the Canadian Space Agency. “Thanks to our skilled scientists, Canadian science and space technology is once again moving beyond the bounds of Earth’s orbit, to the frontiers of international space exploration.”

The size of a small car, MSL’s rover—named Curiosity—is a mobile geology lab equipped with the largest, most advanced suite of science instruments ever to land on Mars. Curiosity will analyze samples on site to determine whether Mars was ever a habitable planet, characterize the climate and geology of Mars, and pave the way for human exploration. APXS is one of 10 science instruments on Curiosity. It will determine the chemical composition of Martian rocks and soil samples to establish their geological history, identify possible alterations by water and perform sample triage for the on-board laboratory instruments. It will be used regularly throughout the mission, which is planned to last one full Martian year (687 Earth days).

An improved version of the instruments on Pathfinder, Spirit, and Opportunity, this latest version of APXS was developed specifically for MSL under the scientific leadership of Dr. Ralf Gellert of the University of Guelph, Principal Investigator for APXS. Dr. Gellert also heads the APXS science team, which is composed of members from the University of Guelph, the University of New Brunswick, the University of Western Ontario, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (a division of Caltech), the University of California, San Diego, Cornell University and the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

The Canadian Space Agency is investing $17.8 million in the design, building, primary operations and scientific support of APXS. The CSA managed the development and building of the instrument with MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. (MDA) as the prime contractor for APXS. The University of Guelph provided the scientific direction for the design and engineering support during the development, calibrated the APXS instrument and will lead the science operations for the instrument. Components of APXS were tested in Brampton, Montreal, Vancouver, Ottawa, Toronto and Guelph.

“The launch vehicle has given us a great injection into our trajectory, and we’re on our way to Mars,” said MSL Project Manager Peter Theisinger of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. “The spacecraft is in communication, thermally stable and power positive.”

The Atlas V initially lofted the spacecraft into Earth orbit and then, with a second burst from the vehicle’s upper stage, pushed it out of Earth orbit into a 352-million-mile (567-million-kilometer) journey to Mars.

“Our first trajectory correction maneuver will be in about two weeks,” Theisinger said. “We’ll do instrument checkouts in the next several weeks and continue with thorough preparations for the landing on Mars and operations on the surface.”

Curiosity’s ambitious science goals are among the mission’s many differences from earlier Mars rovers. It will use a drill and scoop at the end of its robotic arm to gather soil and powdered samples of rock interiors, then sieve and parcel out these samples into analytical laboratory instruments inside the rover. Curiosity carries 10 science instruments with a total mass 15 times as large as the science-instrument payloads on the Mars rovers Spirit and
Opportunity. Some of the tools are the first of their kind on Mars, such as a laser-firing instrument for checking rocks’ elemental composition from a distance, and an X-ray diffraction instrument for definitive identification of minerals in powdered samples.

To haul and wield its science payload, Curiosity is twice as long and five times as heavy as Spirit or Opportunity. Because of its one-ton mass, Curiosity is too heavy to employ airbags to cushion its landing as previous Mars rovers could. Part of the MSL spacecraft is a rocket-powered descent stage that will lower the rover on tethers as the rocket engines control the speed of descent.

The mission’s landing site offers Curiosity access for driving to layers of the mountain inside Gale Crater. Observations from orbit have identified clay and sulfate minerals in the lower layers, indicating a wet history.

Precision landing maneuvers as the spacecraft flies through the Martian atmosphere before opening its parachute make Gale a safe target for the first time. This innovation shrinks the target area to less than one-fourth the size of earlier Mars landing targets. Without it, rough terrain at the edges of Curiosity’s target would make the site unacceptably hazardous.

The innovations for landing a heavier spacecraft with greater precision are steps in technology development for human Mars missions. In addition, Curiosity carries an instrument for monitoring the natural radiation environment on Mars, important information for designing human Mars missions that protect astronauts’ health.

The mission is managed by JPL for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The rover was designed, developed and assembled at JPL. NASA’s Launch Services Program at the Kennedy Space Center in
Florida managed the launch. NASA’s Space Network provided space communication services for the launch vehicle. NASA’s Deep Space Network will provide spacecraft acquisition and mission communication.

For more information about the mission, visit:

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