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Mars rover: the next generation

This article appeared in the December 9, 2011 edition of the Davis Enterprise

By Vinita Domier

Special to the Enterprise


Everyone is invited to the Sat. Dec. 10, 2011 meeting of the Davis Astronomy Club at Explorit's 5th Street branch starting at 7:00pm. You do not have to pay any dues to be a member of the Davis Astronomy Club. If you are interested in astronomy, you are welcome to attend.


This month we will discuss NASA's recent launch of the Mars Science Laboratory (with the rover Curiosity aboard) on Nov. 26, 2011, on an 8.5 month journey to Mars. Expected to arrive on Mars in August 2012, this grand daddy of all robotic rovers thus far will probe the Martian surface in search of life outside of Earth as part of NASA's ongoing long-term Mar's Exploration Program. We will also discuss mission highlights of twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity, the last two rovers on Mars.


NASA’s Mars Exploration Program broad mission is to determine if there is/was life on Mars. Specifically the four main goals are: (1) determine whether life ever arose on Mars, (2) characterize the climate of Mars, (3) characterize the geology of Mars, and (4) prepare for human exploration. As NASA’s exploration strategy is to “Follow the Water”, the Mars missions aim to determine the presence of liquid water on Mars now, or find evidence of flowing water in the geologic past. Thus far, NASA has studied Mars by planetary flybys, orbiters, landers, and rovers. Future explorations will involve airplanes, balloons, sub-surface explorers, and spacecrafts that will bring Martian samples back to Earth for further analysis. 


Missions to Mars are only launched every 26 months when Earth and Mars approach each other as they revolve around the sun in their respective orbits. The expenditure of fuel and passage of time is lowest during these ‘launch windows”. 


NASA’s next generation rover, Curiosity, will follow in the ‘tread’steps of its predecessors - the highly successful Martian explorational rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. Curiosity, on board the Mars Space Laboratory, is expected to land on Aug. 5, 2012, at the preselected landing site – the Gale Crater on the Martian surface. Curiosity is about 5 times the size of Spirit/Opportunity, and it carries 10 times more mass of scientific instruments. The new rover’s wheels are also significantly bigger than previous rovers, and should allow Curiosity to cover about 12 miles during its expected operational life of 686 Earth days or 668 Martian days.


Telescope viewing will be available after the presentation, weather permitting. Very bright Venus (mag. –3.8) will be setting in the west soon after sunset. Bright Jupiter (mag. –2.6), it will rising just before sunset and be up most of the night, making it ideal for telescope viewing. The full moon and the Orion Nebula will also be a treat to view through a telescope or binoculars.


Explorit’s coming events:


• Astronomy Club Meeting , Saturday, December 10, 2011 at 7:00 p.m.  Presentation on the Mars Science Laboratory and rover Curiosity.  Telescopes will be set up for viewing, weather permitting, after the presentation. 


• Explorit’s newest Exhibition, “Forces of Nature” is open December 20 - 24 and December 27 – 31, 2011 for the winter break from 1:00 to 5:00 p.m.  at 3141 5th Street .



Explorit Science Center is located at 3141 5th St. and is open to the public every first Saturday and Sunday of the month.  For more information call (530) 756-0191 or visit, or “like” us on Facebook at

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