The Mars Science Laboratory, NASA’s most ambitious project yet to answer the age-old question about life beyond Earth, arrived at Kennedy Space Center, Fla., late Wednesday for launch preparations.
The nuclear-powered probe, which is about the size of a small car, is designed to spend a Martian year (that’s about two Earth years) studying its landing region to determine if conditions are, or ever were, suitable for life.
NASA expects to pick a landing site this summer — there’s four locations under review. Wherever the rover, nicknamed Curiosity, sets down, scientists expect surprises. That seems to be a given on Mars, which was once thought to be a cold, dry and dead world.
Mars is still cold and dry, but it hasn’t always been that way. And it may have been home — and may still be home — to microbial life.
Curiosity is the latest project in NASA’s revived Mars exploration initiative, a project that began with the mid-1970s Viking landers. NASA resumed putting spacecraft on the planet’s surface in 1997 with a program called Pathfinder. Since then, the U.S. space agency has launched the Mars Exploration Rover twins, Spirit and Opportunity, as well as the polar lander Phoenix mission. Of them, only Opportunity remains operational.
Curiosity will undergo more testing, then be outfitted with its landing system, cruise motor and a protective aeroshell. The rover is due to be launched aboard an Atlas 5 rocket from the nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Nov. 25 and arrive at Mars the following August.
Image: Special delivery — An Air Force C17 transport jet delivers NASA’s new Mars rover to the Kennedy Space Center Wednesday night. Credit: Troy Cryder/NASA