If all goes well on November 26, the newest Mars rover, nicknamed Curiosity, will rise above Earth’s atmosphere on a rocket pushing it toward the red planet.  The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) is the largest and best-equipped rover ever built for the robotic exploration of another planetary surface.

Live Science posted a video clip about one of the MSL instruments named RAD, the Radiation Assessment Detector.  This is the first instrument to study the in situ radiation environment on another world’s surface (radiation from orbit was measured by Mars Odyssey; see 8/07/2003 and 5/18/2005).  Of interest in the video is the comparison between Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere (that shields us from galactic radiation and solar radiation), and the spotty magnetic field on Mars.  The lack of a global protective shield exposes Mars to the onslaught of cosmic rays and solar flares, impacting theories of its habitability.

One of the mission’s goals is, in fact, to study the habitability of Mars.  While Space.com tantalized whether NASA’s newest rover could find life, NASA’s Astrobiology Institute, of all places, stated that “The Martian surface is incredibly hostile for life.”  And it’s precisely because of the endless barrage of deadly radiation that hopes for finding even simple microbial life today are unrealistic. Rover designers want to find out if Mars might have had life in the past, provided the atmosphere and magnetic field were once more conducive.  But perhaps the most realistic goal related to life is to determine whether human explorers – human rovers – could someday survive the harsh radiation environment.  Past studies have been very pessimistic (see 9/23/2006, “Mars Radiation Would Fry Astronaut Brains”).

Curiosity’s launch is scheduled for Saturday the 26th just after 10:00 a.m. EST.  It’s been a long wait.  The rover was essentially finished in 2008, but the launch was cancelled due to a lack of test readiness in March 2009.  Due to planetary alignment, the next launch opportunity would be two and a half years later (i.e., now).  Budget overruns and delays have plagued this mission.  A lot rides on the success of MSL – JPL’s reputation, NASA’s reputation, and public willingness to fund future space missions in a severe economic crisis.  A successful launch, landing in August 2012 and operational mission, on the other hand, could bring a boost to national pride and scientific prestige for the American space program.  Mars missions are known to be “unlucky” as the Russians recently learned once again last week, when their spacecraft to visit Mars’ moon Phobos never made it out of Earth orbit (Space.com).  Stop your Christmas Saturday morning shopping long enough to root for the American team….

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