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Curiosity on its way to Mars

Lift-off! Mars scientists can exhale and breathe normally. At least for the next nine months. The NASA Mars Science Laboratory, or Curiosity, is on its way to Mars, the first step in a process that has doomed so many other Mars missions. The Russian mission to the Mars moon Phobos, for example, is stuck in Earth orbit, and falling (see ‘Russia gets the red planet blues.’)

An Atlas V rocket rattled off the launch pad at 10 a.m. on Saturday from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, lifting the 900-kilogram rover to an Earth “parking” orbit. About 30 minutes later, a booster rocket burn sent the probe on to its interplanetary trajectory. At 10:46 a.m., the booster separated from its precious charge, and watchers in NASA’s launch control room burst into applause.

Now, the US$2.5-billion Curiosity will spend nine months travelling to Mars. Then, in August of 2012, Mars scientists can begin holding their breath again. That’s when the spacecraft will begin “entry, descent and landing” through the tenuous Martian atmosphere, a process otherwise known as the “seven minutes of terror”. It’s tough to land on Mars.

If the new sky-crane system does succeed in lowering Curiosity into Gale crater, the rover will begin its mission: to seek clues for habitability in the ancient, watery environments of Mars. Mike Malin, the planet’s favourite cameraman, or at least its most dedicated, will be watching it all unfold.

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