NASA scientists said Thursday the launch of its Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft in about two weeks could yield a potential “home run” in space exploration.
The new rover Curiosity, bigger and better than its predecessors, is at the forefront of NASA’s effort to investigate Mars for the possibility of habitable life.
Speaking to reporters, Doug McCuistion, director of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, wouldn’t take the bait when asked how likely it was that Mars once had life.
“That’s kind of a request for speculation and I really hate to do that,” he said, adding that the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, a spacecraft the agency uses to study the planet from afar, has found evidence of “briny waters that could actually be liquidly waters on the surface.”
The $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft is scheduled for liftoff at 10:25 a.m. on November 25 from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
Once the sedan-sized Curiosity launches, it will travel about nine months to the surface of the Mars, landing around August 2012.
As an ideal landing spot, scientists have selected the Gale Crater, a 96-mile expanse with a mountain in its core.
Ashwin Vasavada, deputy project scientist for the Mars Science Laboratory, said Curiosity will give the space agency a treasure trove of data on the soil and rock content of the planet.
Of particular interest, Vasavada said, are clay minerals visible from orbit. “We will have a definitive knowledge of the minerals with this rover,” he said.
Curiosity will carry about 10 science instruments, including “the workhorse laboratory” the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM), Vasavada said. The mobile lab will be able to examine soil and rock formations in several different environments. “If any of those really scream out as being a habitable environment, we’ll tell you,” Vasavada said.
“If we find something it’s a home run,” he said.
Peter Theisinger, director of the Engineering and Science Directorate at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said once the mission reaches the Martian atmosphere there are several unknowns that could be problematic.
“I think the thing at the top of my concern list is what I don’t know,” he said. As much planning as went into building the rover, a number of variables can spell disaster and, “You can’t test for them,” he said. “There’s always going to be surprises. What you worry about is if there’s something there that’s really serious,” like software issues or long duration of exposure, he said.
If weather does not permit liftoff on the scheduled day, NASA has made preparations to launch up until December 18, the agency said.