NASA plans to launch Saturday its next-generation Mars rover, the Curiosity, is expected to not only scope out the red planet, but will also act to sooth naysayers who say NASA's glory days are far behind.
The SUV-sized Mars Science Laboratory, nicknamed Curiosity, is expected to reach the planet on August 2012. Researchers hope that during the $2.5 billion, 23-month mission, the six-wheeled half-ton rover will poke, prod and record more of the secrets kept by Mars.
This is a vehicle on Mars, cruising around, drilling into rocks, chipping away at stuff to see what that planet's made out of, Omar Baez, mission launch director, said. And even if it didn't do that, if it just cruised around Mars and took pictures, the value in that is tremendous.
On Wednesday, NASA gave the go ahead to plan for a Saturday liftoff with the first opportunity starting at 10:02 a.m. EST. from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The window closes at 11:45 a.m. EST, NASA officials said.
A failed battery delayed the mission by a day, originally scheduled for Friday, Omar Baez, NASA launch director said. NASA workers replaced the battery and we're clean and ready to go, Baez added.
Joel Tumbiolo, NASA weather forecaster, said the Saturday launch had a 30 percent failure because a cold front may form launch-busting cumulus clouds or cloud ceilings below 6,000 feet.
The launch could be delayed as long as Monday, but another expected cold front would increase the expected failure to 70 percent.
Right now Saturday conditions look good, Tumbiolo said.
Mars exploration has been one of space exploration's holy grails, with 40 flybys, attempts and missions listed by NASA since 1960.
Many previous Mars missions failed due to technical difficulties. Mars really is the Bermuda triangle of the solar system, Colleen Hartman, NASA administrator, said in a press conference Wednesday to laughter.
She and other officials said that several layers of risk assessment showed that the current mission, while not perfect, would fare better than the other missions.
This rover, Curiosity rover, is really a rover on steroids, she said. It will go longer, it will discover more than we could possibly imagine.
The rover will travel 127 million (205 million kilometers) to reach its destination before an expected Aug. 5 landing date.
The 10 instruments on the rover will take photos, collect samples, analyze the environment and radiation levels over the 98 weeks that make up a Martian year.
The rover is expected to focus on the Gale Crater region of Mars to look for evidence of past and present habitable environments, according to a NASA report.
The mission's four objectives as outlined by the federal space agency include: finding any potential evidence of life or its building blocks, learning more about Martian geology, exploring for clues of any past habitats for life and finally learning more about solar and cosmic radiation.
NASA will also try to bring back samples from the red planet and will prepare to one send humans to Mars in the future.
I hope I will be alive to watch the first astronaut when she puts her boot in the red, red soil of Mars, Hartman said at the Wednesday press conference.