Curiosity Is Off to Mars!!

This morning, the Curiosity rover took off successfully for Mars–whoohoo!  Here’s the launch:

The rover will take its 8 1/2 month journey to Mars, where it will conduct experiments on rocks and other geographical features as it looks for past conditions that may have been suitable for life.  The rover itself will not be looking for life forms, but instead, studying past environments by studying the rocks with its traveling laboratory.

Here’s what Curiosity looks like when it’s unfolded from its rocket :

As a size comparison, Curiosity is about the size of a Mini Cooper (larger than any other rover ever sent to Mars–as a comparison, the Mars Sojourner, which launched to Mars in 1997, was about the size of a microwave oven).  There are two cameras mounted on its “head,” and a laser will vaporize rock from a distance, then analyze the dust for organic compounds. (you can’t make his stuff up!) It also contains a nuclear battery that will power the rover even when it’s at the poles of Mars, too far away from the sun to generate enough energy that way.

The nuclear battery is made of plutonium-238, a radioactive material that has been used for years to power unmanned space vehicles (Voyagers 1 and 2 were powered with the same material, and thanks to that, are still operating today, over 30 years later!  They’ve made it beyond the solar system and are continuing to send limited messages to us).  Plutonium-238 is different than plutonium used to make nuclear weapons–this kind doesn’t explode, among other things.  You may have heard about an impending shortage of the US’ supply of plutonium-238…many people are trying to decide how to get more for future space missions.  The US had a nuclear plant that manufactured the source, then the US had been buying it from Russia.  Now Russia wants to change the rules of the contract (who knows what those new rules are!), so the US is re-thinking their strategy.  That leaves NASA scrambling to make sure they have enough of the material for future missions.

In the latest update from the Curiosity rover, NASA has already received messages from the tightly packed rover, letting NASA know that all systems are operating normally.  Hooray!

Safe travels, Curiosity!!

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~ by alanotte on November 26, 2011.

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