NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity will launch on Saturday morning at 10:02 EST aboard a United Launch Alliance's (ULA) Atlas V. Curiosity will launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at Space Launch Complex 41.
MSL Curiosity will be the most complex and scientifically advanced robot to ever explore the surface of another planet. See below for a diagram of MSL Curiosity and all of its instruments.
|For a description of everything on the payload click the image.
For specifics on the launch and navigation I highly recommend you read Universe Today's How Will MSL Navigate to Mars? Very Precisely
But where on Mars with MSL Curiosity land?
Curiosity is set to land in Gale Crater on Mars between August 6 and August 20, 2012 and has an expected operation time of 668 Martian sols (686 Earth Days). Gale Crater is 150 kilometers (~93.21 miles) in diameter, so there is a lot of space for Curiosity to land, but fortunately NASA has given us a better idea! See below for approximately where in Gale Crater MSL Curiosity will land.
|Gale Crater with Landing Site Outlined
Image Credit: NASA/JPL/HiRISE
What will Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity study in Gale Crater?
Gale Crater contains an enormous mound near the center that rises even higher than the southern rim of the crater. It rises 5.5 km above the northern crater floor and 4.5 km above the southern crater floor. The mound contains many layers; it is estimated that its foundation may be as old as 2 billion years old. Curiosity will be able to examine these different layers and determine at which point, if any, Mars was able to support life. It is speculated that the mound is what remains of sedimentary layers that once filled the entire crater and that these were initially deposited on a lake bed.
|A look at the lower portion of Gale Crater's central mound
Image Source: NASA
As you can see from the labels, the lowest portion of the mound is comprised of clays and sulfates, materials which are formed in the presence of water. The overlying layers contain sulfates, but very little clay, implying they were formed in an environment in which water was evaporating and Mars was becoming drier.
What does the MSL Team hope to find?
Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program claims that Gale Crater was chosen from all candidate landing sites because "the site holds a diversity of features and layers for investigating changing environmental conditions, some of which could inform a broader understanding of habitability on ancient Mars." He also states that "Gale gives us attractive possibilities for finding organics," but points out that it is still unlikely we will find organic life still living on Mars.
Regardless of whether Curiosity discovers past or present life on Mars it is a great step toward manned exploration of Mars. The discoveries that Curiosity makes will at the very least give us a better understanding of the Martian past and its habitability. Knowing this will enable us to plan for future missions to Mars.
Watch MSL Curiosity Launch Live!
I'll make sure to post a live stream of Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity's launch, so check back for that on Saturday morning! Don't forget the launch is scheduled for 10:02 AM EST! This is one you won't want to miss.