1. Curiosity Blasts Off En Route To Mars

    The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) spacecraft and the rover known as Curiosity are on their way to the Red Planet after lifting off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 shortly after 10am EST Saturday. 

    An Atlas V rocket carrying MSL successfully ignited and cleared the tower at 10:02am Eastern on November 26, according to NASA’s official launch blog. 

    Approximately four minutes later, the first stage exhausted its propellant and fell away, and at 10:07am, the Centaur upper stage engine fired with the rocket moving at a speed of approximately 12,600mph at a height of 100 miles above the Earth’s surface. The Centaur burned for seven minutes, shut  down for a period of 20 minutes, then re-ignited to propel the vehicle out of the planet’s orbit. 

    Curiosity’s journey to Mars will take approximately eight and a half months, and will cover more than 350 million miles, the Associated Press (AP) reports. 

    The U.S. space agency has said that the nearly 8,500-pound MSL is scheduled to touch-down on Mars on August 6, 2012 at between 1:00am and 1:30am EDT. The rover is 9 feet, 10 inches long (not counting the arm); 9 feet, 1 inch wide; and 7 feet tall at the mast. It has an arm length of 7 feet, a wheel diameter of 20 inches, weighs about five times more than the Mars rovers that came immediately before it, and uses both a radioisotope thermoelectric generator and lithium-ion batteries for power. 

    Colleen Hartman, assistant associate administrator at NASA’s science mission directorate, called it “a rover on steroids” during a pre-launch news briefing, Space.com’s Mike Wall said Saturday morning. 

    “This is a Mars scientist’s dream machine,” Ashwin Vasavada, MSL deputy project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, added in comments made to AFP reporters. “This is the most capable scientific explorer we have ever sent out… We are super excited.”

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