45th Space Wing Supports NASA's Mars Science Laboratory's mission

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  • By 45th Space Wing
  • Public Affairs
The U.S. Air Force's 45th Space Wing provided flawless Eastern Range support for the United Launch Alliance's successful launch of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory's mission to set down a large, mobile laboratory -- the rover Curiosity -- using precision landing technology that makes many of Mars' most intriguing regions viable destinations for the first time.

The launch occurred at 10:02 a.m. (EDT) from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station aboard an Atlas V Rocket.

A combined team of military, government civilians and contractors from across the 45th Space Wing provided vital support to the MSL mission, including weather forecasts, launch and range operations, security, safety and public affairs.

The wing also provided its vast network of radar, telemetry, optical and communications instrumentation to facilitate a safe launch on the Eastern Range.

"Although I have sat on-console for numerous Eastern Range launches in the past, this marked my first as the Launch Decision Authority," said Brig. Gen. Anthony Cotton, commander, 45th Space Wing, who assumed command Aug. 30. "Every mission on the range is indeed a synchronized team sport; kudos to our 45th Space Wing team, as well as NASA and ULA for a job well done. I look forward to watching Curiosity land on the Mars surface in August."

The spacecraft, which will land in August 2012, has been designed to steer itself during descent through Mars' atmosphere with a series of S-curve maneuvers similar to those used by astronauts piloting NASA space shuttles.

During the three minutes before touchdown, the spacecraft slows its descent with a parachute, and then uses retro rockets mounted around the rim of an upper stage. In the final seconds, the upper stage acts as a sky crane, lowering the upright rover on a tether to the surface.

During the 23 months after landing, Curiosity will analyze dozens of samples drilled from rocks or scooped from the ground as it explores with greater range than any previous Mars rover.

Curiosity will carry the most advanced payload of scientific gear ever used on Mars' surface, a payload more than 10 times as massive as those of earlier Mars rovers.

Its assignment: Investigate whether conditions have been favorable for microbial life and for preserving clues in the rocks about possible past life.

Unlike earlier rovers, Curiosity carries equipment to gather samples of rocks and soil and then processes and distributes them to onboard test chambers inside analytical instruments.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., builder of the Mars Science Laboratory, has engineered Curiosity to roll over obstacles up to 65 centimeters (25 inches) high and to travel up to about 200 meters (660 feet) per day on Martian terrain.

The rover's electrical power will be supplied by a U.S. Department of Energy radioisotope power generator.

The multi-mission radioisotope thermoelectric generator produces electricity from the heat of plutonium-238's radioactive decay.

This long-lived power supply gives the mission an operating lifespan on Mars' surface of a full Mars year (687 Earth days) or more.