Barring any unexpected changes to the weather forecast at Cape Canaveral, the rocket carrying NASA's new Mars rover Curiosity will launch just after 10 a.m. EST tomorrow morning, with touch down on the Red Planet expected to take place in August
Curiosity is ten-feet long and weighs 1984 pounds, which makes it twice as long and four times heavier than the Spirit and Opportunity rovers. It has a top speed of 300 feet per-hour, but is expected to move around Mars at an average speed of 98 feet per hour. The rover's scheduled to spend 23 earth months -- one Martian year -- exploring the surface of the planet.
According to NASA the rover's primary mission will be to "search areas of Mars for past or present conditions favorable for life, and conditions capable of preserving a record of life," which is refreshingly direct. To do this, the rover will "analyze dozens of samples drilled from rocks or scooped from the ground" in the hopes of identifying "preserving clues" -- like the presence of methane and carbon -- in the samples.
Curiosity is equipped with ten "science instruments" to analyze the samples it collects (Spirit and Opportunity only had five). The "science suite" includes four cameras, three spectrometers, a rock "grinder," and a host of magnets. It will collect samples using a foot-long robotic arm.
Rather than solar panels, Curiosity will be driven by a 10.6 pound plutonium battery, which understandably has people concerned about a radiation catastrophe if the rocket's launch goes haywire, or just gets caught in the earth's atmosphere like Russia's Phobo-Grunts spacecraft, which is currently stuck in earth's orbit after a botched launch earlier in the month.
NASA wants the rover to land in the Gale crater, which is about the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. Satellite images suggest the crater could be lined with deposits of life-supporting materials. Because Curiosity is so much heavier than the other rovers, scientists had to develop a "sky crane" that will be used to set the rover down, rather than the inflatable breaking systems used in the past.
NASA will be streaming a live feed of the launch starting at 7:30 a.m. tomorrow. You can alsowatch the 98 second trailer animated trailer NASA assembled for the two-year mission right now.