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Curiousity to Land on Mars in Two Days

NASA's space rover on track to begin most ambitious and adventurous mission to the Red Planet

Faced with budget constrictions, NASA has had to wind down its space exploration programs, leaving international and private space organizations to take the lead — but not before one last mission to Mars.

space rover Curiosity Image courtesy NASAAn artist's concept of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, a mobile
robot for investigating Mars' past or present ability to sustain microbial life.

The car-sized, nuclear-powered planet rover, dubbed Curiosity, is aboard a spacecraft currently racing through space toward the Red Planet. The rover, that was launched last November, is scheduled to land in the Gale Crater, one of the lowest points on Mars’ surface, late Sunday night in what scientists have called the “hardest NASA robotic mission ever attempted.”

The 3.5 billion year-old crater may hold answers to the mission’s central question: Was there ever life on Mars?

In order for life to exist, there are three prerequisites: water, energy, and carbon-based molecules. There is convincing evidence that water once flowed on Mars, and the sun or volcanic heat would provide sufficient energy. That leaves the search for carbon-based molecules, which has become the focus of Curiosity’s $2.5 billion expedition.

In the first week or so, Curiosity will beam back photos of its surroundings, first in black and white, then in color.

space rover Curiosity Mars A close-up of a dust storm on Mars.

Over the next two years, the rover will use some of the most advanced technology ever created to gather intel from the planet’s sediments on Mars’ history. One tool, called the ChemCam, can transform a piece of rock into superhot gas from as far away as 25 feet. The colors of light that emanate from the gas give ChemCam the necessary information to determine which elements are in the rock. On board Curiosity are several other instruments, including a weather station and multiple cameras, but by far the largest instrument that Curiosity is carrying is the Sample Analysis at Mars, Sam, for short — using its 74 cups, Sam, with the help of three other instruments, will heat samples of ground-up rock to 1,800 degrees, and then identify the gases that are released, paying close attention to any carbon-based molecules that are emitted.

NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory will have news briefings pre- and post-landing, as well as live commentary of the landing available both on NASA television and streaming live on its website. On Sunday at 3 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time, there will be a pre-landing news briefing, and at 8:30 p.m., live commentary of the historic landing will begin on the NASA TV Public Channel. After the landing is completed which will be no earlier than 11:15 p.m., NASA will hold a post-landing news briefing.

Who knows, maybe at the end of two years we might just find out that there was once someone, or rather something, else out there beyond the limits of our lonely planet. But my guess is it wasn't a little green man.

Claire Perlman
Claire Perlman is Earth Island Journal's summer intern. She is an English major at the University of California, Berkeley and is the lead Research and Ideas reporter and a senior staff writer at the student newspaper, The Daily Californian.

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