NASA To Launch New Mars Rover On Friday

This artist's concept depicts the rover Curiosity, of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission, as it uses its Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument to investigate the composition of a rock surface. ChemCam fires laser pulses at a target and views the resulting spark with a telescope and spectrometers to identify chemical elements. The laser is actually in an invisible infrared wavelength, but is shown here as visible red light for purposes of illustration. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

NASA will launch its Mars Science Laboratory on Friday from the Kennedy Space Center. The MSL will deliver a car-sized rover called Curiosity to the surface of mars in august of 2012. The mission is part of NASA's plan to send humans to the red planet.

A human mission to Mars is still 20 to 30 years in the making. But in order to make that possible, NASA is using robotics to collect data from Mars to determine what the effects of longterm space flight will be on astronauts.

Doug Ming is NASA's Manager of Human Exploration. He says the Curiousity rover will help determine if there are resources on Mars that can be used in support of a human crew while they're on the surface.

"There are two primary areas that we might utilize local resources. The first is in life support, where we will use resources to extract oxygen, water and even perhaps produce food on Mars for the crew. The second is to develop a propellant for our propulsion systems to send the spacecraft off the surface and back to earth."

Another challenge with sending humans to Mars is the length of time required for the mission. It will take about six months for the crew to get there, plus another six months to get back home.

Add on to that a 500 day mission on the surface and you're looking at nearly three years for one trip.

Dr. John Charles, with NASA's Human Research Program, says they've identified 31 risks that need to be examined for safe travel to Mars.

"The unacceptable risks include the radiation issue, especially radiation carcinogenesis — the effects of radiation in causing cander. We have psychiatric and behavior disorders that are possible in a small group of people confined in a small volume for an extended period of time. We have the problem of understanding how to treat illnesses and injuries that occur in space flight and the remote reaches of the solar system."

Curiousity will bring back all sorts of information about the surface of Mars.

NASA's Matt Ondler says the robotics used in the MSL rover will be an ongoing part of the mission, both in collecting data ahead of time and assisting humans when they arrive.

"Those challenges of getting humans to Mars are very similar to getting an MSL to Mars. Mars has just enough atmosphere to be irritating and troublesome. And so you have to deploy parachutes at supersonic speeds and how do you get a large mass that you would need to put humans to the surface. MSL is going to be the largest mass that we've put on the surface and as you see, a very, very challenging activity to get that rover down."

The rover is scheduled to set down on Mars in August of next year. It will be the largest vehicle ever sent to Mars and will spend nearly two years exploring the surface of the planet.

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Laurie Johnson

Local Host, All Things Considered

Laurie Johnson is the Houston host for All Things Considered at KUHF NPR for Houston. Before taking the anchor chair, she worked as a general assignments reporter at KUHF, starting there as an intern in 2002...