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Continued: Mars ahoy: NASA launches robotic explorer to study Martian atmosphere and climate change

  • Article by: MARCIA DUNN , Associated Press
  • Last update: November 18, 2013 - 4:20 PM

Curiosity's odometer reads 2.6 miles after more than a year of roving the red planet. An astronaut could accomplish that distance in about a day on the Martian surface, Grunsfeld noted.

Grunsfeld, a former astronaut, said considerable technology is needed, however, before humans can fly to Mars in the 2030s, NASA's ultimate objective.

Mars remains an intimidating target even for robotic craft, more than 50 years after the world's first shot at the red planet.

Fourteen of NASA's previous 20 missions to Mars have succeeded, beginning with the 1964-launched Mariner 4, a Martian flyby. The U.S. hasn't logged a Mars failure, in fact, since the late 1990s.

That's a U.S. success rate of 70 percent. No other country comes close. Russia has a poor track record involving Mars, despite repeated attempts dating to 1960.

India became the newest entry to the Martian market two weeks ago with its first launch to Mars.

If all goes well, Maven will cruise past India's Mars voyager, called Mangalyaan, or "Mars craft" in Hindi. Maven should beat Mangalyaan to Mars by two days next September, Mitchell said.

"It's kind of a neat race, and we wish them all the best," Mitchell said.

Earth and Mars line up properly for a Mars flight every two years, occasionally resulting in just this sort of traffic jam. The two planets are constantly on the move, thus the 440 million-mile-plus chase by Maven to Mars over the next 10 months.

Maven's science instruments will be turned on in the next few weeks. During the second week of December, the University of Colorado's ultraviolet spectrograph will try to observe Comet ISON, now visible and brightening in the night sky as it speeds toward the sun.

ISON will zip within 730,000 miles of the sun on Thanksgiving Day. Astronomers are uncertain whether the comet will survive that blisteringly close encounter.

Comets have many of the same gases as the Martian atmosphere, observed the chief scientist for Maven's ultraviolet instrument, Nick Schneider.

"What an ideal opportunity for us to try out our instrument and do some good science along the way," Schneider said.

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