JPL to land Mars Curiosity Rover

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Sun, 8/2011

America’s space shuttle era came to an end last month, but roughly 400 workers at Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory are in high gear preparing for the launch of the latest Mars rover, Curiosity.

“We’re trying to see if there was ever life on Mars and would Mars be capable of sustaining life,” Ashwian Vasavada, deputy project scientist on Curiosity, said.

Curiosity is scheduled to launch this fall and reach the red planet in August 2012, where it will collect data for two years. Late last month scientists announced Curiosity will land on the Gale Crater, where rock and sediment deposited down through the millennia are exposed. This landscape will help reveal if the planet ever had the key ingredient of life: water.

 “We targeted a landing site that looks to have the necessary environment and ingredients for life, and we’re going to try to confirm that with this rover,” Vasavada said.

Unlike previous rovers, Curiosity will have the ability to drill into rocks. It has a laser that reduces rocks to powder, and equipment to perform detailed analysis of samples.

“That’ll help us in two ways,” said Vasavada. “We’re looking for specific minerals in the rocks that would tell us about the availability of water in the past, which we think is necessary for life. We’ll also look for organic material, such as carbon-containing molecules that are the building blocks of life.”

The Mars Science Laboratory, NASA’s official name for Curiosity, is being run out of JPL’s Pasadena campus. Pete Theisinger, who has worked at JPL for more than 40 years, is the project manager. John Grotzinger, also a geology professor at Caltech, is the lead scientist.

When the Mars exploration rovers Spirit and Opportunity first arrived on Mars in 2004, about 1,000  people at JPL were involved, according to Vasavada. With Spirit already retired and work nearing a close on Curiosity, that figure has tapered off to about 400.

The Mars Science Laboratory is the largest current JPL project, Vasavada said, with an overall price tag of $2.4 billion.

Curiosity is slated to launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla., between Nov. 25 and Dec. 18, weather permitting. Unlike the space shuttle Atlantis, which came back to Cape Canaveral July 21, Curiosity will never return.

“All data analysis will be done on the rover on Mars,” Vasavada said. “In 2014 it will have been on Mars for two years and that’ll be the end of our mission. If the rover is still working fine, NASA might decide to keep using it.”