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NASA’s Curiosity Rover begins its Mars mission

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Artist's concept of Mars Science Laboratory Spacecraft

NASA’s car-sized Curiosity Rover has begun monitoring space radiation ahead of planning future human missions to the Red Planet. Curiosity was launched on November 26 from Cape Canaveral abroad the Mars Science Laboratory. It carries an instrument – Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) — to monitor high-energy atomic and subatomic particles from the Sun, distant supernovas and other sources.

“RAD is serving as a proxy for an astronaut inside a spacecraft on the way to Mars,” said Don Hassler, RAD’s principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo.

“The instrument is deep inside the spacecraft, the way an astronaut would be. Understanding the effects of the spacecraft on the radiation field will be valuable in designing craft for astronauts to travel to Mars,” said Hassler.

Artist's concept of Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover

The rover will monitor radiation on the surface of Mars after its August 2012 landing. The RAD instrument is on the rover inside the spacecraft and shielded by other components of the Laboratory including the aeroshell that will protect the rover during descent through the upper atmosphere of Mars.

Curiosity will investigate whether the selected region on Mars offers environmental conditions favorable for supporting microbial life and favorable for preserving clues about whether life existed. “While Curiosity will not look for signs of life on Mars, what it might find could be a game- changer about the origin and evolution of life on Earth and elsewhere in the universe,” said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

The spacecraft would have travelled 31.9 million miles (51.3 million kilometers) of its 352-million-mile (567-million-kilometer) flight to Mars as on December 14. The first trajectory correction maneuver during the trip is being planned for mid-January. (Courtesy NASA)

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