NASA offered a spectacular reminder that the space program is alive and well Saturday, with the brilliant blastoff of an ambitious Martian probe.
The Atlas V rocket soared away from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station right on time, but disappeared seconds later behind some low clouds. If all goes well, the Mars Science Laboratory and its six-wheeled rover 'Curiosity' will arrive at the Red Planet next August and begin looking for signs of life.
Curiosity will be the first new mechanical resident of the planet since 2008's now-dormant Phoenix Mars Lander but it probably won't be alone. The small 'Opportunity' rover is still running, though it will be over eight years old by the time Curiosity arrives.
Curiosity represents a giant leap from its predecessors -- a "rover on steroids," as NASA Assistant Associate Administrator Colleen Hartman described it.
"It will go longer, it will discover more than we could possibly imagine," she pledged.
The nuclear-powered rover is the size of a small car -- five times larger than Opportunity and carrying 10 times the payload of scientific instruments. One of its primary jobs is to look for organic compounds that could be -- or could have been -- building blocks for life.
Before it can do that, however, it will have to execute the first pinpoint landing on the Red Planet. Unlike other probes that parachuted and even bounced onto the Martian surface, the Mars Science Laboratory will use retrorockets to hover a few precarious feet in the air while lowering the lander to the ground.
"I think we have done the same kind of due diligence on this mission that we do on all of our missions," offered Pete Theisinger, the MSL project manager. "Yes, this is the most complicated mission that we've done on the surface of Mars. But the science kind of demands that."
Mars has long been known for 'eating' probes from Earth; in fact, a Russian spacecraft meant to land on Mars' lumpy moon Phobos has been wallowing in Earth orbit for two weeks and will probably never make it much further.
But NASA has had a decent track record with Martian spacecraft lately and a successful mission would give the agency some much-needed PR. It's the first major mission since the retirement of the space shuttles, which are being gutted in buildings just a few miles from MSL's launch pad.
Indeed, NASA managers were on the defensive even before MSL got off the ground. Colleen Hartman started the prelaunch briefing earlier this week by refuting the notion that NASA's best days had passed.
"The launch of the Mars Science Lab and the rover Curiosity this Saturday and NASA's success just this last year show just how very, very wrong that rumor truly is," she insisted.
But if you ask the scientists who have spent years working on this mission, they're focused on this mission and just taking it all one step at a time.
"It feels tremendous to have completed all this work," Theisinger added. "The people who are worried about landing and worried about the surface mission, they consider this prologue. This is necessary but not sufficient for them to get their jobs done, and they've got a lot of work to get done during the cruise [phase] to get ready for that. But I think you could visibly see the team morale improve."
LINK: NASA's MSL website