NASA Launches 25 Billion Rover to Red Planet

Return to the Red Planet! NASA has sent a $2.5bn unmanned rover vehicle to make the trip across space to Mars in order to seek out signs of life. Launched into the sky atop an Atlas 5 rocket on Saturday 26 November 2011, the mobile science lab will take eight and a half months to make the voyage of 352 million miles to Mars, and then spend a couple of years at the bottom of a 100 mile wide crater seeking out traces of organic compounds and other signs that Mars may once have been habitable.

According to a report published on ZDNet, this is NASA’s biggest mission to Mars yet, and even if the Curiosity rover doesn’t actually find Ice Warriors or Tripods or any other variant on little green men or traces thereof, scientists expect to learn a great deal more about the history of our nearest planetary neighbour. In other words, it might give us a much clearer idea of whether the planet was ever theoretically capable of supporting life, even if the rover finds no direct evidence of any organisms or organic compounds.

Humanity has been obsessed for a long time with both the idea that there may be life on other worlds (purely from a statistical point of view, there almost certainly is), and also the specific idea that there might be life on Mars (purely from an empirical view, there almost certainly isn’t). HG Wells invented modern science-fiction with his War of the Worlds between Mars and late Victorian England.

TV’s Doctor Who did battle with the Ice Warriors, green armoured reptiles with awesome names, and Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles introduced several different species of Martians almost as an afterthought compared to the author’s bittersweet tales of the issues humanity takes with them into space even as they leave behind their home planet.

The Curiosity mobile laboratory has been fitted with a robotic arm and a nuclear power pack as it sweeps the crater for any clues to Martian life past, or even the potential for the planet to support the evolution of life in the future.

After some tense moments during the launch when the rocket’s telemetry proved a bit patchy for the first 20 minutes or so, the launch was a success, and the Curiosity rover is now en route to the Red Planet. After the 8.5 month voyage across the Solar System, the final descent into the Gale Crater will be a nail-biting combination of 900mph descents arrested at the last moment by huge parachutes and additional landing rockets.

Previous Mars missions have demonstrated evidence for past water and heat on the planet’s surface, and the rover’s real challenge over the course of its two year mission will be to find traces of organic carbon compounds which would complete the three main requirements for life to have developed on the planet’s surface in some form.

At the very least, scientists will be overwhelmed with a wealth of new data from the surface of Mars. Even if the hoped for carbon compounds prove elusive, we will know a lot more about our neighbour than we do now.