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Curiosity countdown: Biggest-yet Mars rover speeds toward destiny

April 30, 2012|By Amy Hubbard

The Curiosity rover is within 100 days of landing on Mars, and JPL scientists are jazzed about the upcoming adventures of the biggest rover yet sent to the Red Planet.

The Mini Cooper-sized vehicle, ensconced within the Mars Science Laboratory, is speeding toward the Red Planet, rapidly whittling away the 352-million-mile journey.

Meanwhile, on Monday, a handful of journalists gathered in the California desert for a confab with Caltech's John Grotzinger, project scientist for Curiosity. In an area where the terrain resembles Mars, they talked science and what the Curiosity will be up to after its scheduled touchdown on Aug. 5.  The Times' Amina Khan was among those in attendance and will be reporting back.

The Mars Science Laboratory blasted off on its eight-month trip on Nov. 26.  As The Times reported, the liftoff was flawless.  Joy Crisp, witness and deputy project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge,  reacted to the launch of the mission succinctly: "Whew! That felt so good."  

The excitement at JPL, where Curiosity was constructed, has been building since then. Scientists have been practicing, among other things, how they will move the rover's robotic arm. (See the video above.)  And they have been trumpeting the news on the Facebook page for Curiosity, which is in first person, which is either cute or disconcerting in a Wall-E sort of way:

"Who's got six wheels, a laser and is currently en route to the Red Planet? Me. I'm Curiosity, aka the Mars Science Laboratory."

The rover is 1 ton of sophisticated scientific gadgetry. The size of the six-wheeled vehicle is a step up from previous Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, which were each about the size of a golf cart.

NASA officials have said that the key mission of Curiosity is to determine whether life might have existed on Mars at any time -- in the form of microbes, tiny organisms found in great quantity on Earth. Then there's the long-term hopes for a manned mission to the planet. The rover could help build a case for the ability of astronauts to survive on Mars. 

When Curiosity reaches Mars, it is slated to land at Gale Crater, deputy project scientist Ashwin Vasavada told The Times earlier this month. It's a site where the soil is rich in clays -- minerals that need liquid water to form. Vasavada likened a mound at Gale Crater to "a book that has chapters from all the major parts of Mars history."

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