Curiosity hopes to kill age-old Mars question
A nuclear-powered rover as big as a compact car is set to begin a nine-month journey to Mars this weekend to learn if the planet is or ever was suitable for life.
The $2.5bn (€1.9bn) mission is the first since NASA's 1970s-era Viking programme to directly tackle the age-old question of whether there is life in the universe beyond Earth and will focus on trying to gain a better understanding of Mars's environment. "Everything we know about life and what makes a livable environment is peculiar to Earth," said NASA astrobiologist Pamela Conrad.
"What things look like on Mars are a function of not only the initial set of ingredients that Mars had when it was made, but the processes that have affected Mars."
Without a large enough moon to stabilise its tilt, Mars has undergone dramatic climate changes over the aeons as its spin axis wobbled closer or farther from the sun.
The history of what happened on Mars during those times is chemically locked in its rocks, including whether liquid water and other ingredients believed necessary for life existed on the planet's surface, and if so, for how long.
In 2004, rovers Spirit and Opportunity landed on opposite sides of Mars's equator to tackle the question of water.
Their three-month missions grew to seven years, with Spirit succumbing to the harsh winter in the past year and Opportunity beginning a search in a new area filled with water-formed clays. Both rovers found signs that water mingled with rocks during Mars's past.
The new rover, Curiosity, will analyse one particular site called Gale Crater, whose 96-mile wide basin has a layered mountain of deposits stretching three miles above its floor -- twice as tall as the layers of rock in the Grand Canyon.