New NASA Rover Will Reach Mars in Three Weeks

The rover is called Curiosity.

It launched from Cape Canaveral last November and is just now approaching Mars.

Doug McCuistion is director of the Mars Exploration Program.

“Is it risky? Landing on Mars is always risky. There are hundreds of discrete events that occur, from release of the cruise stage, to parachute deployment, to heat shield deployments. All of these are unique and any one of them could cause problems. We go from 13,000 mph to 0 in 7 minutes.”

Mar Rover sky crane
This artist's concept shows the sky crane maneuver during the descent of NASA's Curiosity rover to the Martian surface. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

McCuiston says the agency will try a new landing technique called a “sky crane.”

The descent vehicle will parachute close to the surface, then lower the rover to the ground using special cables.

That technique allows the rover to be heavier, so scientists could put more instruments on board.

"We needed a different system because we were really at the maximum of the previous landed system."

Scientists already know that Mars has ice, so the main goal of this mission is to find evidence of liquid water on Mars – either now or in the past.

The landing site has been carefully chosen for that purpose.

It’s a crater called Gale.

John Grotzinger is a planetary scientist at the California Institute of Technology.

“Gale is one of the lowest places on Mars, and if you don’t know anything else in advance, that’s where you want to go to find evidence of water. Water flows downhill, and that’s where we’re going.”

Curiosity will be able to scoop up soil, drill into rock, and even shoot a laser at rocks and analyze the residue with a spectrometer. 

The idea is to look for chemical building blocks of biological life, or even just minerals that show evidence of past interaction with liquid water.

From the KUHF Health and Science Desk, I’m Carrie Feibel.

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