While most of us in the US were still digesting from the Thanksgiving holiday this past weekend, many folks at NASA were incredibly busy. That's because on Saturday, November 26th, NASA launched the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) into space aboard an Atlas V rocket.
The MSL mission is NASA's latest big step in attempting to answer whether the Red Planet has been, or currently is, suitable for microbial life. It won't answer whether life is there now, but it will tell scientists whether or not the building blocks we think are necessary to have life exist.
The rover aboard the MSL has been christened Curiosity. Like its roving ancestors, Spirit and Opportunity, Curiosity will travel around Mars's surface studying various features. While Spirit and Opportunity were each about the size of a golf cart, Curiosity is much bigger – more like a Mini Cooper. It also sports twice as many science instruments as its predecessors and has a drill that will allow it to penetrate some of the Martian rocks.
It will take MSL about eight and half months to travel the over 350 million miles to Mars. Once it gets there, it has a pretty tricky landing involving a sky crane that will lower Curiosity down on cables.
In the meantime, we want to wish Curiosity the best, and say congratulations to all of the people who worked so hard to make it happen. Chandra has done some interesting research of our neighbor planet, but certainly can't drive around the surface and drill holes like Curiosity will. We are absolutely excited and can't wait to see what MSL will discover when it gets there. Good luck, Curiosity.
-Megan Watzke, CXC