Current Magazine

NASA to Launch Mars Rover Curiosity – but Will It Be the Last of Its Kind?

Posted on the 25 November 2011 by Periscope @periscopepost

NASA to launch Mars rover Curiosity – but will it be the last of its kind?

The Curiosity. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

It’s costing $2.5 billion and will take more than nine months to get there, but the NASA’s rover Curiosity is going to Mars – the Mars Scientific Laboratory, the space agency’s most ambitious planetary exploration project ever, is scheduled to launch at 10:02 a.m. on November 26 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Curiosity’s mission is to determine whether Mars was ever capable of supporting life and, it seems, to prove to the world that NASA is still the leader in space exploration, despite several rounds of budget cuts and the recent shelving of its manned space shuttle flights. The rover, twice as long as two previous Mars rovers and weighing 2,000 pounds, has been outfitted with the most advanced payload of scientific instruments ever used on the surface of the Red Planet; it’s capable of collecting and testing rock and soil samples in its onboard analysis equipment, then relaying its results back to Earth. Curiosity is expected to arrive on Mars in August 2012 and will conduct its mission, powered by a plutonium-253 radioisotope power generator, over the following 23 months, about the length of one Martian year.

That’s provided it actually reaches Mars and lands safely – as Andy Bloxham, science reporter for The Daily Telegraph, noted, “Getting to Mars has never been easy. The United States has launched 18 missions to the red planet, chalking up 13 successes and five failures, including back-to-back disasters in 1999. The Russians have fared worse, launching nearly 20 missions with only two partial successes to date.” No doubt NASA engineers are crossing their fingers: The Curiosity represents eight years of planning, more than $600 million in budget overruns, and a two-year delay, Wired reported.

But NASA’s latest effort isn’t entirely without controversy: The rover’s on-board nuclear power generator is fueling a debate over nuclear versus solar power, as the same time that the launch has put NASA’s anemic budget back in the spotlight.

Visiting Mars: The Washington Post has pulled together a list of the best works on Mars in fiction and non-fiction, from Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles to Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars.

Money, money, money. The rover runs off a nuclear power pack that uses plutonium-283, a radioactive isotope whose heat is converted to electricity; but America stopped making the toxic material back in the 1980s and Russia, its most recent supplier, has stopped providing it to the US after that deal expired in 2009. The US is rapidly going through its stockpile and the American Congress has turned down the Department of Energy’s requests to fund more plutonium-238 production – meaning that the Curiosity rover may be the last of its kind to get off the ground. NASA has said that without the plutonium, its operations are severely curtailed: “It remains to be seen if the US government is listening,” said Brid-Aine Parnell, writing at tech blog The Register.

Want to watch the lift-off? Wired has the best places to see the launch on the ‘net.

Nuclear vs. solar power. The rover is capable of so much more than any previous rover because of its nuclear power generator, nuclear power proponents claim. Blog Idaho Samizdat: Nuke Notes claimed, “Only the radioisotope power system allows full-time communication with the rover during its atmospheric entry, descent and landing regardless of the landing site. And the nuclear powered rover can go farther, travel to more places, last longer, and power and heat a larger and more capable scientific payload compared to the solar power alternative NASA studied.” But, Matthew Wald at The New York Times’s Green blog pointed out, “both nuclear power and solar power in space have problems.” Solar power, which can only be used under certain conditions, isn’t necessarily as reliable; but the US is also running out of its stockpile of plutonium-238. So the agency needs to either make more or figure out a new way of powering its space program.

Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog