Curiosity launches to Mars on Saturday

By Phil Plait | November 25, 2011 11:55 am

[UPDATE: SUCCESS! The launch was just about perfect, and Curiosity is now on its way to Mars, scheduled to land in August 2012. Congrats to everyone on the mission!]

Tomorrow, Saturday, November 26 at 10:02 Eastern (US) time (15:02 UTC), an Atlas V rocket carrying the Curiosity Mars rover will blast off from Florida, sending the sophisticated rolling lab to the Red Planet.

You can watch the launch live at NASA TV, or I recommend on the NASA/JPL UStream channel. I imagine I’ll be up and tweeting about it, as will my pal Emily Lakdawalla.

It is no exaggeration to say that Curiosity is a huge leap forward for Mars exploration. Designed to last for nearly two years, it’s 3 meters long — the size of a hefty golf cart — and its scientific payload is ten times more massive than its predecessors. It has instruments (PDF) that can sample and taste the air and surface, imagers to provide high resolution stereo pictures, a laser to zap rocks and get their spectra (which yields their composition), and even a camera that will take video of the last two minutes of its descent to the surface to provide aerial context for its cameras once it lands.

If you thought Spirit and Opportunity were cool — and you’d be right — Curiosity will up the ante considerably. I’m very excited by the prospect of the science this rover will do, and the exploration it’s capable of as a precursor, eventually, to a human being stepping foot on this odd, dry, and cold neighboring world.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, NASA, Space
MORE ABOUT: Curiosity, Mars, rover

Comments (63)

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  1. Curiosity launches to Mars on Saturday « Scribe And Scholar | November 25, 2011
  1. Shatners Basoon

    A great little video, showing the journey Curiosity will take, about half way down the page in this BBC news report.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-15882485

  2. Mark

    I usually sleep in on the weekends, but I’m going to get up for this. After Sojourner, Spirit, and Opportunity, we’ve had amazing luck with our little rovers, and although the landing seems complex, I have high hopes for Curiosity.

    I look forward to the launch, awaiting the landing, and keeping track of its exploration and discoveries. Good luck, Curiosity! And all the folks at NASA and JPL!

  3. andy

    Let’s hope this does better than Phobos-Grunt, after all we don’t want all those massive budget overruns to be for nothing…

  4. martiancat
  5. MichaelL

    @Andy Not too worried about the launch, it’s the landing that has me worried! I think this will be the most complicated landing of a probe. Hopefully it all goes well. Too bad that the Russians could not resolve Phobos-Grunt.

  6. Jonathan Latimer

    Fingers crossed for launch, travel, landing, science, software, parachutes, wheels, weather…

    Hm. Typing will be hard with fingers crossed for the next few years. I suppose ‘Good Luck!’ will have to suffice.

    May the mission be full of discoveries!

  7. Woolfman

    Phil,

    I believe “Eastern” is a North American (i.e. Canada counts too) time zone… No?

  8. Phobos-Grunt is talking to the Russians again, having missed its Mars insertion window. It will be given a different mission before it spirals in for a messy hard landing. One wonders for what “different mission” a Phobos lander is qualified.

    http://www.spaceweather.com/
    2/3 down

    Interrogate and return-sample a near-Earth asteroid. Some nice big ones are passing by in December… but it would be wrong. Momentum change for sample return is no biggie. Stay on the cooperative rock until it swings by again… and NASA’s Constellation Program, er, US National Space Policy, ah, the Space Launch System, which is to say the Commercial Crew Development Vehicle, or maybe the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program will miss picking it up. Managers cannot manage discovery, they can only manage to end it.

  9. lqd

    “Mars is essentially in the same orbit [as Earth]….Mars is somewhat the same distance from the sun, which is very important. We have seen pictures where there are canals, we believe, and water. If there is water, that means there is oxygen. If there is oxygen, that means we can breathe”.
    —Dan Quayle, Vice President 1989-1993

  10. Steve D

    Probably the easiest mission is impact (Lunar Ranger = 1 point). Flyby is next, because instruments have to be oriented correctly and turned on at the right time (=2). Then an orbiter, because you have to pass by the planet at the right distance and speed and the retrorockets have to fire (=5). A lander has to enter orbit, detach correctly, and land, and then return data (=20). A sample return has to do everything an orbiter does, and then again in return, and we have to be able to recover the samples (= 100). This mission has all the difficulty of a lander, plus the sky crane (=70?). Manned missions gain flexibility from having humans aboard but the life support needs raise the difficulty level enrmously.

  11. I was excited to see it fully assembled on a field trip to JPL with my daughter’s class last Spring. I was on a similar field trip 3 years earlier with my other daughter’s class and there was one unrecognizable part. I thought it was interesting that it will use jet packs to land as it is too heavy for a parachute in Mars’ thin atmosphere.

  12. Grand Lunar

    I have high confidence that the launch will go as planned.
    Atlas V has that sort of reputation, one reason it’s my favorite EELV. :)

    And if the Centaur is the stage that boosts it to Mars, then I doubt it’ll be stuck in orbit like Phobos-Grunt was (I hope THAT mission can be salvaged).

    The landing on Mars is where I have anxiety over the mission.
    Quite a complex technique.
    Here’s hoping all goes well. Which we have a while to wait for……..

  13. Matt T

    I work just down the hall from many of the SAM instrument makers at Goddard. Watching that instrument being built has been amazing and I can’t wait to see it blast off tomorrow and do its work on Mars next year!

  14. I’ll be watching on NASA TV as usual – been looking forward to this for ages and following the countdown clock on the Curiousity NASA page.

    Now T minus 12 hours, 9 minutes and 5 seconds and counting as of posting this comment. Rocket is now on the pad, wetaher looking good with 70% chance of fine conditions.

    “The United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with the NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity rover rolled out to Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station around 8 a.m. EST Friday. Launch is set for 10:02 a.m. Saturday.”

    - NASA’s Curiosity countdown clock page linked to my name.

    So that will make launch at about 1.30 am tomorrow morning my (Adelaide, South Oz) time. Looks like I’ll be having yet another late night! :-)

  15. MichaelL

    @Uncle Al:
    Phobos-Grunt has quit talking again. no further signals picked up:
    http://www.marsdaily.com/reports/No_further_contact_with_stranded_Mars_probe_ESA_999.html

  16. Messier Tidy Upper

    @9. lqd : November 25th, 2011 at 2:14 pm

    Nice quote there. I’m going to deconstruct it a little if I may :

    “Mars is essentially in the same orbit [as Earth]….

    Well he’s only around half an Astronomical Unit out.

    I guess if you allow for rounding up to the nearest AU then he’s right? ;-)
    Actually if round up to the nearest AU then Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars are all right together at 1 AU~ish. Crowded! ;-)

    (Seen from Pluto’s vantage point the rocky planets are pretty much all jammed in together practically sharing a common orbit and perpetually lost in our Sun’s glare. From a Plutonian point of veiw Neptune is the morning and evening star. Guess its all a matter of perspective.)

    Mars is somewhat the same distance from the sun, which is very important.

    But, Dan, didn’t you just say we were in the same orbit? Essentially?

    As for that being important, well, important for what? Life, I presume, but then there are examples such as Europa which lie well outside the “goldilocks zone” plus the possibility of very diferent life forms from our own that may require vastly different conditions.

    We have seen pictures where there are canals, we believe,

    Can we be charitable here and assume they missed hearing the ‘d’ on the end of that line? It’s kinda true. Once we did think, well okay a few astronomers including notably Percieval Lowell (and non-astronomers like HG Wells) did think there were canals on Mars – meanwhile many other astronomers disagreed and Edward Emerson Barnard more accurately saw martian craters instead.

    Oh & he did say “pictures” not photos which I guess kind of allows the possibility he was thinking of spaceart and SF magazine covers not, well, all the Viking images of the surface they’d got back in the mid 1970′s. Um, Mr Quayle, your info is somewhat out of date there. ;-)

    .. and water. If there is water, that means there is oxygen.

    Technically he’s right y’know. After all, water is composed of oxygen and hydrogen. But :

    If there is oxygen, that means we can breathe”.

    That part not so much.

    There’s oxygen around Europa too but not really at breathable levels. You need a certain concentration of oxygen and you need that oxygen to be in breathable form which martian ice is, yeah, not-so-much. Also temperature ~wise, you maybe could breathe in super-chilled oxygen at temperatures far below freezing but you wouldn’t do so for very long! :-o

    — Dan Quayle, Vice President 1989-1993.

    Still Quayle was a better and more scientifically literate US Vice President than Sarah Palin would have made! ;-)

  17. JB of Brisbane

    Did Quayle really say that? Or is this another bogus “attributed to” quote along the lines of the Mariah Carey “Starving Kids In Africa” quote?

  18. Don’t forget there is a tweetup going on at this launch. You can follow all the tweeps using the hash tag #NASATweetup

  19. lqd

    @ JB

    Unfortunately, that’s a real Quayle quote. Lots of dumb sayings have been attributed to him, but this is sadly real. Even more pathetic is that President Bush appointed him to lead the National Space Council.

    Thanks for the neat analysis, MTU. If you’re not from the US, just make sure you realize that Dan “Potatoe” Quayle was never taken seriously by any intelligent Americans.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wdqbi66oNuI

  20. Willis

    Soooo…. what I got from the NASA animation is that we are invading Mars with flying saucers. We’re gonna bring em’ democracy, right?

  21. Bee

    Off topic: I thought this might amuse you http://arxiv.org/abs/1111.5489

  22. SDavies42

    Apologies if this was already addressed somewhere and I missed it (hangover+early start at work!), but will Curiosity be searching at all for signs of life?

    Also, @Shatners Bassoon That is a cool video, and the landing looks very complicated… But why would they include sounds in the spacey parts!? Not your fault, I know.

  23. Naomi

    Go, Curiosity, go!

    I studied it – a lot – last year during my Mars course at University of Arizona – this is a mission I’m more fascinated by than any other in the recent past! Totally worth getting up again at 2 AM to watch it!

  24. BBC world news has a good article on the Curiosity as does my local newspaper, The Advertiser (page 71 for any fellow South Aussies out there – strangely nothing in ‘The Australian’ on it that I could find.) which is very aptly named but occassionally does a pretty reasonable job of astronomy news. I’ve linked the BBC item to my name and the ’tiser‘s one is now pride of place on my pinboard. :-)

    @20. lqd : No worries. Cheers. Well aware of Dan Quayle’s comedic status – my guess is that both he and S. Palin were selected as running mates as “assassination insurance” because nobody would target the POTUS knowing who was next in line to take over! ;-)

    ***

    PS. Now 2 hours, 53 minutes, 25 seconds 41 min, 55 secs and counting. Launch blog to be up shortly (7.30 am local NASA page time) too. :-)

  25. Brian137

    I won’t be able to watch because of my schedule at work, but I can check your blog from time to time, Phil.

  26. Weather looks pretty good. Looks like they’ve moved the launch up by 9 minutes 50 seconds; wonder why.

    ETA: Ah. There’s going to be a built-in ten minute hold; the countdown shown on Ustream will stop for ten minutes, then resume. So the actual launch time (the “T” in “T minus 20 minutes”) won’t change.

    (Since I’m here — isn’t it irritating how often the phrase “T minus” is misused in movies? I think that started with “Alien”. You hear it all the time in automated announcements of when a place is going to self-destruct: “Self destruction in T minus five minutes.” No, you stupid computer — that should be either “self destruction in five minutes” or simply “T minus five minutes”. What the hell do they think “T” means?)

  27. T-minus 15 minutes .. looking good, into a hold as scheduled with the clock stopped for ten minutes with the five minute stopped clock mark.

    Weather seems good, rocket seems set to go. Wishing for the best for them all. Have a safe launch and a smooth flight Curiosity. :-)

    Switched to NASA TV viewing now having completed my responses to earlier comments on the Giant Sunspots / Great Planet Definition Debate thread linked to my name here. (Just to let folks who might be interested in that know.)

    EDIT : All systems ‘go’; five minutes and counting. Cleared to proceed. permission to launch granted. :-D

  28. Scottynuke

    And awaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay she goes!!! :D

  29. Brian137

    And awaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay she goes!!!

    ….And then?

  30. Grand Lunar

    “….And then?”

    Then we hold another press conference. :D

    One more sucess for Atlas V’s score card!

    Now it’s up to MSL………

  31. Scottynuke

    And then a whole buncha “nominal,” right into the coast phase after the second stage cut off cleanly the first time. :D

  32. What a beautiful launch. Perfect, far as I could tell. What do you think of the Atlas V configuration with the four small SRB’s? Pretty cool.

    Can’t wait ’til August!

  33. NoseyNick

    What’s with all the data loss? Is this going to end up parked in earth orbit like the Russian one? :-(

  34. Lift off! Beautiful, jubilation evoking sight to watch. :-D

    Congratulations and thanks to all those involved. You have built and flown a marvel. (Raises celebratory beer. Toasts Curiousity‘s success.) :-)

    Can’t wait to see Curiousity land safely and start roaming those russet sands of Mars in Gale crater.

    (Wonder how the West Indian cricketer of the same name – Gale not Curiosity that is – will be doing then? ;-) )

    T plus 33 minutes. All nominal. Superluminous. :-)

    EDIT : MECO 2 successfull, re-orienting to prepare for spacecraft separation and then burn towards Mars… and successful separation, right on time! Curiosity is on her way to Mars. 8)

  35. Blargh

    Zucchi: it needs more of them. If there’s anything that Kerbal Space Program’s taught me, it’s that you always need MORE BOOSTERS.

  36. MichaelL

    Bah! I was up, but had to get the dog out for his routine. Missed the launch by 15 minutes.

  37. Brian137

    Wow! Great news! Thanks for the commentary, guys.

  38. Brazen Normalcy

    Hey, Phil! On the telecast, it said the Centaur stage will be going into a solar orbit. It also had a camera & transmitter (the ones used to show separation of the Mars mission from the Centaur stage). So will the Centaur stage be doing any science?

  39. Watched the launch as well as the final separation on Nasa TV.

    Of course I tried to get my kids watch this as well… “Oh, come, quickly! It’s a camera showing how the spacecraft is going to separate… as it happens in reality!!”

    Probably I’m the person at home who’s most excited, but I’m quite certain that the English word ‘Curiosity’ will be well known for my 4 and 6 year old girls (we are native Swedish speakers otherwise ;-) ).

    Hopefully Curiosiy will land at a time of the day which allows us to fire up Nasa TV and follow it live in ca 9 months or so. Will be fun as my kids remember the rocket launch that happened today :-D !

    (I know, indoctrinate your kids, as everyone else does it and all that… but it cannot really hurt to turn them into partial space-nerds, can it?)

  40. Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this mars with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us…

  41. Brian137

    Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this mars with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us…

    Just overlooked one microscopic detail.

  42. Brian137

    Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this mars with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us…

    Must be tough living underground licking ice cubes.

  43. Now we’re at the 39 second mark of this animation :

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P4boyXQuUIw&feature=related

    Gale crater, Mars here we come! 8)

    @42. Brian137 : Lol. ;-)

    ***

    “No one would have dreamed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.”
    - Opening sentence of H.G. Wells ‘War of the Worlds’, 1898.

    (Jeff Wayne Musical version linked to my name here.)

  44. James

    As much as I really want this mission to be a success, I’m about 70% sure it’s going to fail. The landing system is just way too complicated, with lots and lots of stages that could easily go wrong.

  45. Brian137

    I’m still high off the bouncing beach balls from eight years ago, and I hope that Chinese guy saved the garish red, white, and blue outfit. Gonna’ be there in August with my drink and my snacks, my hopes and my crossed digits. Any of you guys know any good prayers, I’m very open about that (sorry, Phil)!

  46. I had the iPad hooked to my HDTV with an HDMI cable & NASA TV app running 720p video goodness! Great launch!

  47. Nick L

    Out of curiosity, (nyuk nyuk nyuk) is the sky crane programmed to fly off in a specific direction after the rover is deployed rather than just “away”?

  48. jennyxyzzy

    “Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this mars with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us…”

    Yeah – every time I look at pictures of Curiosity, I can’t help thinking of War of the Worlds. Who was the bright spark that decided sending probes capable of vaporising rock at 30m with a laser mounted on a fracking mast was a good idea? 8-)

  49. Brian137

    Yeah – every time I look at pictures of Curiosity, I can’t help thinking of War of the Worlds. Who was the bright spark that decided sending probes capable of vaporising rock at 30m with a laser mounted on a fracking mast was a good idea?

    Someone with curiosity.

  50. Crux Australis

    Read this while listening to “A Case For Mars”. Lovely.

  51. [shameless plug]One thing I think is really cool (as I very briefly pointed out in my brand new little blog – click on my name) is the accuracy of the lander. [/shameless plug]
    Past missions couldn’t risk landing near really rough terrain, in part because the area in which they might actually land was so darn wide and unpredictable. The reason that this Gale crater mission is so exciting is that there’s some steep terrain with exposed rock strata that will contain a lot of areologic history. Not only could past missions not safely land near a target like this, but even if they attempted to, it was quite possible that they’d still wind up landing 70 klicks away.
    Truly, every part of this mission is “Our past good ideas, but new, improved, and cranked up to 11.”

  52. @Brain137: “Yeah – every time I look at pictures of Curiosity, I can’t help thinking of War of the Worlds. Who was the bright spark that decided sending probes capable of vaporising rock at 30m with a laser mounted on a fracking mast was a good idea?”

    Someone with curiosity.

    Heh, all the best questions begin with “I wonder…”
    As in, “I wonder what happens to this thing when I shoot it with a 10 megawatt laser pulse?”

  53. Now if only the mission planners had selected a landing site called Grover’s Mill.

  54. Buzz Parsec

    Zucchi@27, as an interesting curiosity, the countdown was invented for Fritz Lang’s 1929 movie Die Frau im Mond to increase the dramatic tension of the rocket launch.

  55. Sammy

    Does anyone know if JPL was able to include the chip with the list of names for the “Send Your Name To Mars” thing. I’ve seen no follow up. I know sending my name is a bit of a publicity gimmick but it is the closest me and in all likelihood my kids will get to space exploration. I don’t want to tell them their name is on it’s way to Mars unless it’s true.

  56. vince charles

    39. Brazen Normalcy Said:

    “Hey, Phil! On the telecast, it said the Centaur stage will be going into a solar orbit. It also had a camera & transmitter (the ones used to show separation of the Mars mission from the Centaur stage). So will the Centaur stage be doing any science?”

    No. The camera is likely a Sony security/industrial cam, dragooned into space service. It wasn’t designed for hard vacuum or radiation. So, by instrument standards, the data are crappy, and the unit might die in weeks to months. Still, it’s enough to tell if anything went wrong with mission events, which is why it’s there. Also, the transmitter on Centaur is probably too weak to be heard from deep-space distances, if engineers are following standard practice.

  57. vince charles

    53. Joseph G Said:

    ” Truly, every part of this mission is “Our past good ideas, but new, improved, and cranked up to 11.”

    “Heh, all the best questions begin with “I wonder…”
    As in, “I wonder what happens to this thing when I shoot it with a 10 megawatt laser pulse?””

    Yes and no. In the short term, design works well with such “new and improved!” However, on longer timescales, engineers must ask whether it’s time for a clean break, and an entirely different design. That’s where things get risky… and interesting.

    And that’s engineering… in science, as they say, the interesting stuff usually happens after saying “Hmm, that’s odd.”

  58. Brian137

    From the link Phil provided above under the words “Curiosity is now on its way to Mars,”

    The unique rover will use a laser to look inside rocks and release their gasses so its spectrometer can analyze and send the data back to Earth.”

  59. @59 vince charles: Well, yeah, I was being a little silly regarding the laser :D

    And yes, I was oversimplifying things just a wee bit. I just meant that every aspect of Curiosity is even more impressive then its predecessors, and that I’m as excited as a young girl at a Justin Bieber concert about it :-P

  60. Matt B.

    AAGH. You don’t step foot, you set foot. You can’t step things; “step” is an intransitive verb.

  61. Matt B.

    @25. MTU: “my guess is that both he and S. Palin were selected as running mates as “assassination insurance” because nobody would target the POTUS knowing who was next in line to take over!”
    Actually, GHWB said he chose Quayle “because he’s good-looking and therefore women will vote for him.” (Not necessarily an exact quote.) My mom was so offended by that that she changed her party affiliation.

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