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Cruising To Mars: The Rover's Tasks


Earlier today, NASA's latest Mars mission left Earth heading on its journey to the Red Planet.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Three, two, one. Main engine start. Zero and liftoff of the Atlas V with Curiosity, seeking clues to the planetary puzzle about life on Mars.

MARTIN: The Mars Science Laboratory will land next August. The spacecraft won't be making any scientific observations during its interplanetary cruise, but there's still plenty to do on the eight-and-a-half-month trip to Mars. NPR's Joe Palca has more.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Operating Mars Science Laboratory in cruise mode isn't nearly as exciting as it will be to operate when it's roving around on the surface of Mars. Charles Baker of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena is cruise mission planner for the Mars Science Laboratory. I asked him what mission scientists and engineers do during the long interplanetary cruise.

Is this a time where people, you know, get their tans all set and, you know, relax with a cool drink by the pool while they wait for the thing to get to Mars?


CHARLES BAKER: That would be ideal, but not even close.


PALCA: Baker says there are a number of critical operations that have to occur before the mission can reach its ultimate destination. These start shortly after launch.

BAKER: The first thing we want to check out is the ability to navigate and the ability to see stars.

PALCA: Although the spacecraft will be tracked from Earth, it's important that it knows where it is as well.

BAKER: And then we get into our first trajectory correction maneuvers.

PALCA: This is to refine the path to Mars. The rocket that launches the spacecraft from Earth gets it going in basically the right direction, but there are always tweaks needed. In fact, until the final tweaks, the trajectory is calculated so the spacecraft will miss Mars. That's so if mission managers should lose control of the spacecraft it won't splat on the surface. NASA doesn't want to contaminate the Martian environment. The rover that will actually land on Mars is nestled in a special cocoon during the cruise.

BAKER: We have to check out the instruments that are on board. Remember, the rover has a suite of instruments.

PALCA: The goal is to be sure everything is working, at least electronically. Baker says there are more than 100 separate tasks that the spacecraft will perform during the cruise. Only next August, when the rover is safely on the surface of Mars, will Baker be able to head to the pool.

BAKER: My role, essentially, is over when we're on the surface.

PALCA: Once on the surface, the Mars Science Laboratory is supposed to explore an area on Mars called Gale Crater. Observation from Mars orbit shows clays and minerals in the crater that suggest they were formed by interactions with water. But this mission is supposed to do more than just look for signs of water. Caltech's John Grotzinger is principal investigator for the Mars Science Laboratory.

JOHN GROTZINGER: We're going to land a rover that can move around and explore for habitable environments where microorganisms may have existed in the past or may possibly exist today.

PALCA: Finding conditions that could sustain life isn't the same as actually finding evidence of life, but understanding the conditions on Mars will help scientists know what kind of life to look for. Joe Palca, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.