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NASA readies launch of 'dream machine' to Mars

 The US space agency is getting ready to launch later this month the biggest, most expensive robotic vehicle ever built to explore Mars for signs of previous life there, NASA said Thursday.

The Curiosity rover, known formally as the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), is a $2.5 billion state-of-the-art vehicle equipped with video cameras and a sophisticated mobile tool kit for analyzing rocks and soil on the red planet.

The launch of the 1,982-pound (899-kilogram) rover is set for November 25 at 10:21 am (1521 GMT) from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

"This is a Mars scientist's dream machine," said Ashwin Vasavada, MSL deputy project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

"This is the most capable scientific explorer we have ever sent out... We are super excited."

The rover will explore the Gale Crater on Mars, just south of that planet's equator, where a range of soils exist and a small mountain gives the rover a chance to climb and analyze samples at different heights.

This artist concept shows NASA`s Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, a mobile robot for investigating Mars` past or present ability to sustain microbial life. (AFP)
This artist concept shows NASA`s Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, a mobile robot for investigating Mars` past or present ability to sustain microbial life. (AFP)


But first it faces a long, 354-million-mile (570-million-kilometer) journey to get there, taking about eight and a half months before landing in August 2012.

The landing itself is set to be a spectacular affair. A ravioli-shaped capsule will open to expose the rover suspended by a "rocket backpack" that will fire its engines to lower the MSL to the ground.

The rover's six wheels and suspension system should "pop into place just before touchdown," NASA said. Then, the machine goes into "surface mode," using a series of cameras and a long robotic arm to investigate the Martian terrain.

"It is not your father's rover," said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Program at NASA headquarters in Washington, describing it as "truly a wonder in engineering... the best of US imagination, the best of US innovation."

NASA sees the latest rover as a midway point in a long journey of Mars exploration that began with the landing of the Viking spacecraft in 1976 and may culminate with a human mission there in the 2030s.

The venture is not meant to hunt for life on Mars, but rather for signs that it once may have existed there.

Any clues it can send back about the habitability of Earth's neighbor, the fourth planet from the Sun, and about the radiation levels there will be important to NASA as it devises future exploration missions.

"This mission has the purpose of setting us up for an eventual life detection mission," said Vasavada. "The goal of this mission is to look for habitable environments on Mars."

The landing site was announced in July, a day after the space shuttle Atlantis returned to Earth from its final mission to the International Space Station, marking the formal end of the 30-year US shuttle era.

The project is meant to last two years, but NASA hopes that like some of its other rovers in the past, Curiosity will outlive its expected potential.

The rover has such advanced instruments that scientists expect it will return much more data than any other to date.

"Viking did the best it could, but it could only see a couple of samples. MSL is going to look at tons of samples," said Pamela Conrad, deputy principal investigator of sample analysis at Mars.

Her experiment, a set of three spectrometers, is "designed to not only sniff the atmosphere and look for volatile species but to evolve gases from solid samples and then sniff those gases that come out," she said.

"Mars very easily could have produced life. Mars could very easily have evolved the complex chemistry that is necessary to be a habitable environment. And that information is still on Mars."

Of course, those involved in the launch have some jitters over the mission too because it is so complicated.

Russia's failure this week to get its pioneering Mars probe off on the right course also serves as a grim reminder of the dangers involved.

The unmanned Phobos-Grunt spacecraft lost its course to Mars and is stuck in low-Earth orbit, threatening to crash within days.

"The thing at the top of my concern list is what I don't know," said MSL project manager Pete Theisinger. "These things are very complicated, you test the heck out of them, but you can't test all their interactions."




 

<한글기사>

화성생명체 찾아 美 탐사선 25일 발사



역대 최대 규모의 화성 로봇탐사선  프로젝트 인 큐리오시티호가 오는 25일(현지시간) 미국에서 발사된다.

미 항공우주국(NASA)은 25일 오전 10시21분(그리니치표준시 오후 3시 21분)에 플로리다주(州) 케이프커내버럴 공군기지에서 화성 표면 탐사선 큐리오시티호를  발 사한다고 10일 밝혔다.

발사와 궤도진입에 성공하면 큐리오시티호는 8.5개월 후인 내년 8월에 화성  적 도 바로 아래 분화구인 게일크레이터에 착륙해 표면 탐사를 시작한다.

큐리오시티는 첨단 카메라와 무선 분석장비를 갖춘 로봇이 탑재된 탐사선으로, 화성 표면을 돌아다니며 로봇팔을 이용해 다양한 고도에서 암석과 토양 샘플을 채취 해 분석하는 임무를 수행하게 된다.

탐사선은 표면 착륙 때 로봇에 매달린 '로켓 배낭'의 추진력으로 고도를 조절하 며, 바닥에 닿기 직전에 몸체에서 바퀴 6개와 서스펜션이 튀어나오도록 설계됐다.

공식 명칭이 '화성과학실험실(MSL)'인 큐리오시티 프로젝트에는 25억달러(2조8천 억원 상당)가 투입됐다.

NASA MSL 사업단의 연구진은 "큐리오시티는 화성 연구자에게 꿈의 장비로, 역대 최고 역량을 자랑하는 탐사선"이라며 흥분했다.

큐리오시티 프로젝트는 화성에 생명체 존재 가능성에 대한 귀중한 정보를  제공 할 것으로 연구진은 기대했다.

반면 정상궤도 진입에 실패해 지구로 서서히 추락하고 있는 러시아 화성 탐사선 포보스-그룬트호는 복구 가능성이 점차 희박해지고 있다.

러시아 우주 당국인 로스코스모스 과학자들은 이날 포보스-그룬트호와 몇 차례 순간적으로 교신했으나 제어 회복에는 실패했다.

러시아 당국은 추락 속도가 하루 2㎞ 정도로 매우 느리다는 데 실낱같은 기대를 걸고 복구를 시도하고 있지만, 성공 가능성은 극히 낮다고 현지 언론이 전문가를 인 용해 전했다.

익명의 로스코스모스 관리는 "상단 추진엔진을 점화하지 못하면  포보스-그룬트 는 곧 우주 쓰레기 신세가 될 것"이라고 인테르팍스통신에 말했다.

이에 따라 러시아 당국의 주된 우려는 맹독성 연료가 지상으로 추락할 가능성 쪽으로 옮아가고 있다.

당국은 탐사선이 대기권에 재진입하면서 연료 등 위험 물질이 사방으로 흩어져 지상에 추락할 가능성을 언급하기는 아직 이르다며 말을 아꼈다.

앞서 9일 오전 0시16분(현지시간) 카자흐스탄 바이코누르 우주기지에서 로켓 운 반체 '제니트-2SB'에 실려 발사된 포보스-그룬트는 로켓과 성공적으로 분리됐으나 이후 자체 엔진장치가 켜지지 않아 화성으로 가는 궤도에 진입하지 못했다.

같은 로켓에 실려 발사된 중국의 첫 화성탐사선 잉훠(螢火) 1호는  포보스-그룬 트호와 운명을 함께하게 된다.

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