Spacewatch: the missions to Mars Nasa’s rover launch and Russian’s orbiting failure

16 Nov


Nasa is planning to launch its Curiosity rover, the Mars Science Laboratory, during a window that lasts from 15:25 to 17:05 GMT on 25 November, with further windows during each day until 18 December.

Compared with Nasa’s earlier Spirit and Opportunity rovers, Curiosity is twice as long and almost five times heavier. Its superior payload includes a radioisotope power plant that should allow it to operate throughout the Martian year of 687 Earth-days.

It is due to reach Mars next August, touching down within a smooth area of the 154km diameter Gale crater. The landing site appears to have sediments washed from the crater wall, and gives access to a region of interesting rocks, clay minerals and sulphate salts, where Curiosity’s instruments may be able to detect organic molecules.

There is little hope that the Russian Federal Space Agency will be able to salvage its Phobos-Grunt mission to Mars. It reached Earth-orbit on 8 November but the two engine firings needed to boost it onwards to Mars failed to happen, contact has been lost and its batteries may now be flat. Given its current orbit, between 330km and 207km above Earth, it may survive into the new year, but its re-entry brings its own concerns, for much of its mass of 13,200 kg consists of highly toxic nitrogen tetroxide and hydrazine fuel. Its orbit, inclined at 51.4° to the Equator, carries it over southern England twice every day.


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