NASA Rover Begins Journey to Mars

Posted November 26th, 2011 at 12:45 pm (UTC-5)
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The U.S. space agency has launched the newest of its Mars rovers on a two-year mission to find places where life may have existed on the red planet.

NASA's $2.5-billion Mars Science Laboratory, known as Curiosity, took off Saturday from Cape Canaveral, Florida on an unmanned rocket.

The size of a car, the rover has 17 cameras, a robotic arm, a laser, and a drill to break through the planet's rock. It is expected to take the rover about eight months to reach Mars. The intended landing site is a 150-kilometer-wide depression called Gale Crater, named for Australian astronomer Walter Gale.

The crater's geological features include many places where scientists believe water may have once flowed, as well as a high, broad mountain that mission managers say will be a main focus of exploration.

NASA scientists say the rover's instruments will be used to study whether the landing region had favorable conditions for supporting microbial life.

As the U.S. celebrates this latest achievement for its space program, Russia is taking action against a string of recent space failures.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev vowed Saturday to seriously punish those responsible for the mishaps, calling them a strong “blow” to the nation's competitiveness.

Setbacks for Russia this year include the loss of an unmanned cargo craft bound for the International Space Station. The spacecraft crashed in August shortly after launching. And earlier this month, a Russian probe on its way to the Mars moon Phobos got stuck in Earth's orbit.

The six-wheeled Curiosity is the largest of the rovers the U.S. space agency has sent to Mars. The 900-kilogram rover is about two meters tall and two meters long and wide. It is about twice the size of previous rovers Spirit and Opportunity.

NASA scientists have said the rover's mission will help reveal secrets of Mars' environmental history. They say Curiosity will not be on a life-detection mission and will not be searching for fossils.