NASA Robotic Moon Mission Aims for Late-Night Launch Sept. 6

By Todd R. Weiss  |  Posted 2013-09-06 Print this article Print

In August, NASA's Curiosity Mars rover celebrated its one-year anniversary on the Martian surface as it continues to bring back incredible finds to scientists back on Earth, including the discovery of solid evidence that ancient Mars could have supported life. Other rovers have visited Mars in the past, but none before have had the capabilities to dig into the Martian soil and then analyze the soil and rock using an on-board laboratory. Since landing, Curiosity has so far sent more than 190 gigabits of data back to Earth, and has sent back more than 36,700 full images and 35,000 thumbnail images, according to NASA.

The equipment on board the rover has also fired more than 75,000 laser shots to investigate the composition of targets, collected and analyzed sample material from two rocks, and driven more than 1 mile (1.6 kilometers), according to the space agency.

In July, the Curiosity rover began a long-awaited, 5-mile-long journey across the terrain of the red planet to begin exploring a rocky area known as Mount Sharp, 11 months after the rover arrived on the planet's surface. The Mount Sharp destination, which is in the middle of what's known as Gale Crater, is important to scientists working on the mission because it exposes many layers where scientists anticipate finding evidence about how the ancient Martian environment changed and evolved, according to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The rover is expected to take nine months to a year to reach Mount Sharp, due to the care that must be used in crossing the unknown terrain. Since landing on Mars on Aug. 6, 2012, the rover has been undergoing testing, software updates and initial experiments on soil samples on the surface of the planet.

Even as the Curiosity rover continues its exploration of Mars, NASA is already planning another scientific rover mission to the red planet, set for 2020, according to an earlier eWEEK report. The launch of another robotic science rover is part of a "robust multi-year program" aimed at preparing the nation's space program to send humans to a Mars orbit by the 2030s.

The 2020 Mars rover program, which has not yet been named, would reuse designs, parts and technology from the current Curiosity rover. By reusing Curiosity's successful blueprints, the space agency expects to save a lot of money in development costs, while continuing its exploration of the planet.

Full details of what that 2020 Mars mission will entail have not yet been determined. The specific payload and science instruments for the mission will be debated and selected later through an open competition after the scientific objectives for the mission have been formulated, according to NASA. The mission will also be contingent on receiving adequate funding.


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