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NASA Prepares to Launch Curiosity

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If all goes well, tomorrow morning at approximately 10:02 a.m. Eastern time (GMT-5), NASA will launch its newest rover named Curiosity from Florida's Cape Canaveral, headed on a nine-month trip to the planet Mars. The $2.3 billion mission will send a capsule into the Martian sky in August of 2012. After decelerating in the atmosphere, a series of entry events will quickly take place, ending with a rocket-powered sky crane lowering the rover gently to the surface. Curiosity is a beast of a rover, weighing one ton, measuring ten feet long by seven feet tall (at the top of the mast), and powered by a plutonium-238 fueled electrical generator. The rover carries ten instruments, including several high-resolution cameras, and a laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy instrument called ChemCam that can vaporize tiny amounts of minerals and analyze their components. If all goes according to plan, Curiosity is scheduled for a stay on Mars of about 668 Martian sols, or nearly two Earth years, starting in Gale crater. Researchers hope to use the tools on Curiosity to study whether the area in Gale crater has had environmental conditions favorable for supporting microbial life and for preserving clues about whether life existed. (Edit: The launch was successful, and Curiosity is due to land in August of 2012.) [34 photos]

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The Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity, on May 26, 2011, in Spacecraft Assembly Facility at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The rover was shipped to NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Florida, on June 22, 2011. The mission is scheduled to launch tomorrow, November 26, 2011, and land the Curiosity on Mars in August of 2012. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)
The Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity, on May 26, 2011, in Spacecraft Assembly Facility at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The rover was shipped to NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Florida, on June 22, 2011. The mission is scheduled to launch tomorrow, November 26, 2011, and land the Curiosity on Mars in August of 2012. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)
In October of 2008, this 6-inch static pressure model of a capsule designed for the Mars Science Laboratory was tested in NASA's Langely Unitary Plan Wind Tunnel in Virginia. (NASA) #
The parachute for NASA's Mars Science Laboratory passed flight-qualification testing in March and April 2009 inside the world's largest wind tunnel, at NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California. In this image, an engineer is dwarfed by the parachute, the largest ever built to fly on an extraterrestrial flight. It is designed to survive deployment at Mach 2.2 in the Martian atmosphere, where it will generate up to 65,000 pounds of drag force. The parachute has 80 suspension lines, measures more than 50 meters (165 feet) in length, and opens to a diameter of nearly 16 meters (51 feet). (NASA/Ames Research Center/JPL) #
Researchers prepare for a test of the Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument that will fly on NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission. The instrument uses a pulsed laser beam to vaporize a pinhead-size target, producing a flash of light from the ionized material - plasma - that can be analyzed to identify chemical elements in the target. In this photo taken at Los Alamos National Laboratory, Los Alamos, New Mexico, researchers are preparing the instrument's mast unit for a laser firing test. The ChemCam mast unit, which holds the instrument's telescopic camera as well as its laser, was later installed on the remote sensing mast of the mission's Mars rover, Curiosity. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL) #
The ChemCam instrument for NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission uses a pulsed laser beam to vaporize a tiny target on this mineral sample, producing a flash of light from the ionized material that can be analyzed to identify chemical elements in the target. Here, ChemCam Principal Investigator Roger Wiens, of Los Alamos National Laboratory, observes the light from a plasma ball induced by the laser hitting a sample rock from a distance of about 3 meters (10 feet). (NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL) #
This test for the radar system to be used during the August 2012 descent and landing of NASA Mars rover Curiosity mounted an engineering test model of the radar system onto the nose of a helicopter. During the final stage of descent, NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission will use a "sky crane" maneuver to lower Curiosity on a bridle from the mission's rocket-powered descent stage. The descent stage will carry Curiosity's flight radar. This test on May 12, 2010, at NASA Dryden Flight Research Center, in Edwards, California, included lowering a rover mockup on a tether from the helicopter to assess how the sky crane maneuver will affect descent-speed determinations by the radar. (NASA) #
NASA has selected Gale crater as the landing site for the Mars Science Laboratory mission. The mission's rover will be placed on the ground in a northern portion of the crater in August 2012. This view of Gale is a mosaic of observations made in the visible-light portion of the spectrum by the Thermal Emission Imaging System camera on NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter. Gale crater is 96 miles (154 kilometers) in diameter and holds a layered mountain rising about 3 miles (5 kilometers) above the crater floor. The ellipse superimposed on this image indicates the intended landing area, 12.4 miles (20 kilometers) by 15.5 miles (25 kilometers). The portion of the crater within the landing area has an alluvial fan likely formed by water-carried sediments. The lower layers of the nearby mountain - within driving distance for Curiosity - contain minerals indicating a wet history. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU) #
In the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, technicians process the backshell for the Mars Science Laboratory. The spacecraft's backshell carries the parachute and several components used during later stages of entry, descent and landing of MSL's rover, Curiosity. (NASA/Jim Grossmann) #
A closeup of Curiosity's "head" atop the remote sensing mast. Instruments on the mast include two science instruments for studying the rover's surroundings and two stereo navigation cameras for use in driving the rover and planning rover activities. This photo was taken April 4, 2011, inside the Spacecraft Assembly Facility at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, California, For scale, the width of the white box at the top is about 0.4 meter (16 inches). The circle in the white box is the laser and telescope of an instrument named Chemistry and Camera, or ChemCam. The instrument can pulse its laser at a rock up to about 7 meters (23 feet) away and determine the rock's composition by examining the resulting spark with the telescope and spectrometers. Just below that circle is the square opening for a wide-angle camera that is paired with a telephoto camera (the smaller square opening to the left) in the rover's Mast Camera, or Mastcam, which can take high-definition, full-color video with both "eyes." Each of the two Mastcam camera heads has a wheel of filters that can be used for studying geological targets at specific visible-light and infrared wavelengths. Farther outward from each of the Mastcam cameras are circular lens openings for the rover's stereo navigation camera and its backup twin. (NASA/JPL-Caltech) #
The left eye of the two-camera Mast Camera (Mastcam) instrument on NASA's Mars rover Curiosity took the images combined into this mosaic of the rover's upper deck in March of 2011. At the time, Curiosity was inside a space simulation chamber at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, California, for testing under thermal conditions like those the rover will experience on the surface of Mars. The front of the rover is toward the right in this image. On the left is the outer cover for the mission's nuclear power source, a radioisotope thermoelectric generator. At far right is the turret at the end of Curiosity's robotic arm. The light-colored hexagonal object in the top left quadrant of the mosaic is the high-gain antenna, which is about 10 inches (25 centimeters) across. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems) #
The hand lens imager is mounted on the arm of NASA's Mars rover Curiosity at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, on April 4, 2011. The imager will take extreme close-up pictures of the planet's rocks and soil, as well as any ice it may find there. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes) #
Preparation for one phase of testing of the Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity. The testing during March 2011 in a 25-foot-diameter (7.6-meter-diameter) space-simulation chamber was designed to put the rover through operational sequences in environmental conditions similar to what it will experience on the surface of Mars. In this March 8, 2011, image, Curiosity is fully assembled with all primary flight hardware and instruments. The test chamber's door is still open. After the door is closed, a near-vacuum environment can be established, and the chamber walls flooded with liquid nitrogen for chilling to minus 130 degrees Celsius (minus 202 degrees Fahrenheit). A bank of powerful lamps simulates sunshine on Mars. The technician in the picture is using a wand to map the solar simulation intensities at different locations in the chamber just prior to the start of the testing. The space-simulation chamber is at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. (NASA/JPL-Caltech) #
Early morning finds workers accompanying the first stage of the Atlas V rocket for NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission on its move from the Atlas Spaceflight Operations Center on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida to the launch pad on September 8, 2011. A United Launch Alliance Atlas V-541 configuration will be used to loft MSL into space. (NASA/Cory Huston) #
In the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, spacecraft technicians from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory park the multi-mission radioisotope thermoelectric generator (MMRTG) for NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission on its support base in the airlock during an MMRTG fit check on the Curiosity rover. The MMRTG will generate the power needed for the mission from the natural decay of plutonium-238, a non-weapons-grade form of the radioisotope. Heat given off by this natural decay will provide constant power through the day and night during all seasons. The 43kg MMRTG is designed to produce 125 watts of electrical power at the start of the mission, falling to about 100W after 14 years. (NASA/Kim Shiflett) #
In the high bay of the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility (PHSF) at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, spacecraft technicians transfer the multi-mission radioisotope thermoelectric generator (MMRTG) for NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission onto the aft of the Curiosity rover (upside down at right) for a fit check with the aid of the MMRTG integration cart. The MMRTG then will be removed and installed on the rover for launch at the pad. (NASA/Cory Huston) #
In the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the rover Curiosity sits near the spacecraft's backshell (right), and the rocket-powered descent stage (center). (NASA/Jim Grossmann) #
On June 25, 2011, at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, technicians have removed the protective wrapping from the rocket-powered descent stage for NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL). The descent stage will fly the MSL rover, Curiosity, during the final moments before the rover is lowered to the surface of Mars on cables descending from this stage. Once the rover is on the surface and cuts loose from the sky crane, this task for this module will be complete, and it will fire its rockets one last time to crash onto the surface a safe distance away. (NASA/Charisse Nahser) #
Preparing for integration to the rover Curiosity, technicians help guide the rocket-powered descent stage over the rover at NASA's Kennedy Space Center Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility, on September 23, 2011. (NASA/Kim Shiflett) #
At the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, integration is complete between the rocket-powered descent stage and Curiosity (tucked beneath), is complete. (NASA/Kim Shiflett) #
At NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, technicians, using an overhead crane, lift the backshell for NASA's Mars Science Laboratory rover. The backshell, a protective cover which carries the parachute and several components used during later stages of entry, descent and landing, will be encapsulated over the rover and descent stage (seen to the right). (NASA/Dimitri Gerondidakis) #
In October of 2011, the camera captures a unique view of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission, as a technician separates the overhead crane from the cruise stage after it was lifted onto a rotation stand. The cruise stage provides solar power, thrusters for navigation, and heat exchangers to the rover during its nine-month flight from Earth to Mars. (NASA/Glenn Benson) #
In the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, technicians inspect beneath NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission aeroshell, (containing the rover Curiosity), which has been mated to the cruise stage. (NASA/Glenn Benson) #
The flat, circular object in the foreground of the image is heat shield for the MSL -- the largest heat shield ever to be flown in space. The heat shield and the back shell (center, containing the rover Curiosity), are about to be joined together to form an encapsulating aeroshell that will protect the rover from the intense heat and friction that will be generated as the flight system descends through the Martian atmosphere slowing from an initial speed of approximately 21,600 kph (13,420 mph) down to about 2,450 kph (1,522 mph), when the parachute will deploy. (NASA/JPL-Caltech) #
In the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, a technician inspects the alignment of the heat shield as an overhead crane lifts it for integration with NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission aeroshell. (NASA/Glenn Benson) #
On October 10, 2011, at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the fairing acoustic protection (FAP) system lines the inside of the Atlas V payload fairing (the outer shell that will sit atop the rocket), for NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission. This half of the fairing has been uncovered and laid on its side during preparations to clean it to meet NASA's planetary protection requirements. The FAP protects the payload by dampening the sound created by the rocket during liftoff. The fairing will protect the spacecraft from the impact of aerodynamic pressure and heating during ascent. Although jettisoned once the spacecraft is outside the Earth's atmosphere, the fairing must be cleaned to the same exacting standards as the laboratory to avoid the possibility of contaminating it. (NASA/Kim Shiflett) #
In the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, preparations are under way to enclose NASA's Mars Science Laboratory in an Atlas V rocket payload fairing. The blocks on the interior of the fairing are components of the fairing acoustic protection (FAP) system, designed to protect the payload by dampening the sound created by the rocket during liftoff. The two halves of the fairing will come together, protecting the spacecraft from the impact of aerodynamic pressure and heating during ascent. (NASA/Jim Grossmann) #
The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission logo begins to take shape as technicians install it on the exterior of an Atlas V rocket's payload fairing inside the Payload Hazardous Processing Facility in Florida, on October 29, 2011. (NASA/Jim Grossmann) #
Standing atop a payload transporter on November 3, 2011, the Atlas V payload fairing containing NASA's Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft rolls down a darkened roadway during the early morning move from Kennedy Space Center's Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility to Space Launch Complex 41. (NASA/Kim Shiflett) #
Inside the Vertical Integration Facility at Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, technicians using an overhead crane guide the final solid rocket motor into position for mating to the first stage of a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. The Atlas V will carry NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission into space in a launch planned for November 26, 2011. (NASA/Jim Grossmann) #
The Atlas V rocket set to launch NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission is illuminated inside the Vertical Integration Facility at Space Launch Complex 41, where employees have gathered to hoist one of the final pieces to be integrated - the spacecraft's multi-mission radioisotope thermoelectric generator (MMRTG). The generator was lifted up to the top of the rocket and installed on the MSL spacecraft, encapsulated within the payload fairing. The MMRTG will generate the power needed for the mission from the natural decay of plutonium-238, a non-weapons-grade form of the radioisotope. (NASA/Dimitri Gerondidakis) #
Four towering lightning protection masts seem to stand guard as NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) spacecraft, sealed inside its payload fairing, awaits liftoff aboard the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. (NASA/Bill White) #
A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity rover lifts off from Launch Complex 41at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on November 26, 2011. (AP Photo/Terry Renna) #
At NASA Kennedy Space Center's Press Site in Florida, participants in NASA's Tweetup photograph the launch of the agency's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) as it races through the clouds. The 197-foot-tall United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket lifted off Space Launch Complex-41 on neighboring Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 10:02 a.m. EST at the opening of the launch window. (NASA/Frankie Martin) #
A video grab from a movie showing the separation of the MSL spacecraft from the Centaur upper stage, on its way to Mars now, coasting for 354 million miles over the next 8.5 months. (NASA) #

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