Searching for life on Mars
November 26th, 2011
10:00 AM ET

Searching for life on Mars

Nothing about launching a rocket into space is easy. But the easiest part is now over for the Mars Science Lab, or MSL, with its liftoff on an Atlas rocket behind it.

If it works, Deputy Project Manager Ashwin Vasavada said, the implications are enormous. “I think the best way to say why we’re so excited about this mission is that it sets us up for the future of finally answering that age-old question of does life exist on other planets.”

From now until August 6, the vehicle will travel more than 350 million miles through the void of space. On that date, if you were a Martian looking up, you might see MSL streaking across the sky about 3 p.m., Mars time.

As it descends, a rover named Curiosity will be lowered to the surface. It won’t be easy. This will be nail-biting time and hold-your-breath moments for the mission scientists and engineers.

In the past, NASA’s rovers have used airbags to land and bounce across the surface until coming to stop. But Curiosity, at 2,000 pounds, is too big. The Cadillac of rovers, it’s the size of a car. “We’re choosing to make the rovers bigger and bigger, said Jessica Samuels, a surface systems engineer. “Because we want to cover more ground.”

Because of its size, engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California had to design a whole new landing system. Curiosity will be lowered by tethers from its descent stage. Once it’s on the ground, the cables will be severed, the descent stage will fly off, and the six-wheeled rover will be on its own. “So when we land,” Samuels said, “we’ll be ready to go, wheels out, ready to hit the surface.”

If all this works, Curiosity will be the most sophisticated vehicle ever to operate on the Red Planet. “This rover for the time gives us the ability to take a whole geological laboratory to Mars and then feed it samples of Martian rock,” Vasavada said.

Armed with a drill on the end of a robotic arm, Curiosity can bore into rock, scoop up samples and place them in its onboard laboratory. Because Mars has no ozone layer to protect it, scientists believe the surface is sterile. “On Mars,” said Chief Engineer Rob Manning, “if life exists as single-cell organisms, or if it ever existed, we believe it will be under the ground or inside rocks.”

The suite of instruments can tell scientists what kinds of minerals are in the rock and their chemistry, including perhaps the presence of organic material. That would be the Holy Grail of Martian exploration, Vasavada said. “Now if we discover organic material on Mars, then it gets very exciting. The chances of it may be low, but the payoff is huge. Organic materials are required for life as we know it.”

But just the presence of the building blocks wouldn’t mean that life exists. “If you go to the driest desert on Earth, can you find life on your samples if you do a year robotic study? Probably not. It’s actually quite difficult. Life has to stick up and make itself seen,” Manning said.

The sophisticated descent system also gives the science team a shot at a pinpoint landing. The touchdown spot is the Gale Crater, inside of which sits a three-mile-high layered mountain. Each layer, the mission scientists believe, can tell them the history of Mars, when it was wet and more Earthlike, and when it began to change. “So the goal is to go back in time to these environments and figure out if they really, truly could have supported life,” Vasavada said.

And if water ever flowed on Mars, the scientists believe, it might have pooled in the crater. It won’t be there any longer, but evidence could be just below the surface.  From Curiosity’s cameras, the mission team will select targets, then send commands telling the rover where to go and what to sample.

The $2.5 billion mission comes with high risk but the potential for high reward. Finding evidence that life could have existed would easily validate the price tag and likely reinvigorate a desire to hasten Mars exploration.

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Filed under: In Space • Mars • News
soundoff (83 Responses)
  1. 4th wright

    How much extra could it have cost to put some cool wheel covers on it? Maybe some fuzzy dice?

    November 29, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
  2. W L JONES

    The same red soil in Georgia as well in the Africa desert which mean trace of organic material is still present there. As for life those pebble up there is very much alive., they grow every so slow.

    November 27, 2011 at 10:49 pm |
    • ChaoticDreams

      you know that the red coloring is caused by the oxidation of iron, right?

      November 30, 2011 at 7:22 pm |
  3. @helenecha

    Are you ok? What are you talking about?

    November 27, 2011 at 3:00 pm |
    • helenecha

      Fine, thanks. They’re nothing but curiosities, ok?

      November 27, 2011 at 8:47 pm |
  4. helenecha

    By the way, let me guess that Mars is on the way equinox right now.

    November 27, 2011 at 1:26 pm |
  5. helenecha

    It sounds terrific that people who are the planetary looking up stand a chance of seeing MSL moving in the sky from now until August 6. Of course, the ones who are the Martian looking up don’t mind only finding MSL streaking across the sky twice among these days.

    November 27, 2011 at 8:18 am |
  6. Aimee

    I'm sorry everyone. You guys are right. NASA is one of our most beneficial programs. It's very good for our highschools and colleges also. I'm just resentful because I always wanted to work for NASA but they don't hire crazy people.

    November 26, 2011 at 5:46 pm |
  7. @Aimee

    YOU are a waste!

    November 26, 2011 at 5:34 pm |
  8. Ashok

    At this moment, NASA scientist should be working on New generation batteries, Wind energy and Solar or similar renewable energy. Energy is the number one problem of this country.
    Will they liberate us from oil import?

    November 26, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
    • Ramon F. Herrera

      "Energy is the number one problem of this country."

      Indeed. Except that we have several other problems which are Number One as well...

      November 26, 2011 at 2:35 pm |
    • Ramon F. Herrera

      "NASA scientist should be working on New generation batteries"

      Correct! Let's send all those rocket scientists back to school to get different PhDs. Luckily, they will graduate before retirement age...

      November 26, 2011 at 2:36 pm |
    • Ramon F. Herrera

      "Will they liberate us from oil import?"

      Contrary to popular belief, our two main foreign oil providers are not Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. That position corresponds to our inseparable partners: Canada and Mexico. Currently, the percentage coming from the gulf is minimal. For instance, almost all the Libyan oil goes to Europe. Our problem is the dependency on oil, regardless of country of origin.

      November 26, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
  9. Jonnie

    Although I welcome the idea that increased spending on education is helpful to our national quagmire, the elephant in the room is that NASA generates about 8 dollars of spinout revenues for every 1 dollar spend on the program. Moreover, their entire budget is a penny out of each dollar on the Band-Aid fund at MediCare. Innumeracy is our biggest dilemma in prioritizing our collective resources as a nation.

    In a few short years (perhaps before we have a new president) 92% of the federal budget will go to Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and debt service alone. Defense, social welfare, hurricane centers, everything else will be in the remaining 8%. Programs like NASA are a rounding error on a rounding error for the real financial elephant in the middle of the room. Spending on science and engineering efforts are simply long term investments in humanity that the private sector can't handle with its short-sighted nature.

    And while we're at it, the very forum we are talking on, and the computer you are using now would not have existed were it not for the effort to miniaturize and cheapen computers in the 60's. Period. You can have your own opinion, but you cannot have your own facts.

    November 26, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
    • Ramon F. Herrera

      Breaking News: Intelligent life has been found!!!

      In this forum, that is...

      November 26, 2011 at 2:34 pm |
    • Aimee

      I think a lot of those programs in your 92% are more beneficial to us. Granted they need to be reformed as well.

      November 26, 2011 at 5:07 pm |
  10. God

    I had nothing to do with this, stop dragging me into the argument.

    -God

    p.s. Stop believing in me, I'm not real.

    November 26, 2011 at 1:50 pm |
    • ChaoticDreams

      first comment that's made me laugh in weeks on any website!

      November 30, 2011 at 7:19 pm |
  11. Ramon F. Herrera

    To the anti-NASA folks: The budget of the agency (pride of America) has been severely reduced. The space shuttle is gone and the ISS will soon be. The plan to go to the Moon (2020) was wiped out as well. Meanwhile, Japan and China are going.

    November 26, 2011 at 1:50 pm |
    • Ramon F. Herrera

      This administration is concentrating in inexpensive, short-term, more bang for our buck kind of missions. Essentially the can has been kicked to the next decades. This project is dirt cheap, by NASA standards. A lot of people here in Texas are unemployed because of all the budget cuts.

      November 26, 2011 at 1:52 pm |
    • Aimee

      Again, with all the "pride" talk. The USA has too much pride which is why we got attacked in 2001. No one thought it could happen but it did. Now we are spending money to go to space so we can be the first and in the meantime we are also butting into other countries business. When will the US start to worry about what is happening in its borders rather than focusing elsewhere?

      November 26, 2011 at 1:58 pm |
      • Ramon F. Herrera

        "The USA has too much pride which is why we got attacked in 2001"

        There is nothing wrong with JUSTIFIED pride. Have you considered that a child or relative of yours working for NASA? Would you feel ashamed of them? If you dislike leader countries, you live in the wrong one...

        November 26, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
      • Aimee

        The US won't be on top for long. Its pride will eventually get the better of it. I'm not saying that we shouldn't be proud of these people but there are a lot of other things they could be working on.

        November 26, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
      • Kevin

        Aimee wrote, " there are a lot of other things they could be working on."

        Like what Aimee? What should astro-biologists be working on?

        Should we decide that your profession is no longer worthwhile?

        November 26, 2011 at 10:41 pm |
  12. Toltec

    Kidding all aside, it boggles the mind to see that we live in a Country where we can educate such brilliant minds as these Scientists and Engineers. Give credit to these amazing people who live out their dreams of exploring space and distant planets.

    November 26, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
  13. Toltec

    So what happens if it gets carjacked?

    November 26, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
  14. Pam Bennett

    Looking for intelligent life, I hope

    November 26, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
  15. jimzcarz

    Coca-Cola spends more money in advertising each year than this program cost. (That was a fact I checked from another poster) But It kind of puts things in perspective. Wait till we start making the rockets look like coke bottles and sell advertising space to sponsor our programs.

    November 26, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
    • Aimee

      Sounds like a better plan to me. And who cares what Coca Cola spends its money on. The government isn't funding it.

      November 26, 2011 at 1:59 pm |
  16. SPACE EXPLORATION & THE FUTURE

    EXPLORING THE IDEA THAT MARS ONCE HAD LIFE IS NOT AS IMPORTANT AS THE PEOPLE AND ALL THE CONFLICTS THAT OCCUPY THE LIVES OF 7 BILLION PEOPLE HERE ON EARTH

    November 26, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
    • Aimee

      agreed

      November 26, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
    • SG

      These type of missions pay my salary, put food in my children's mouths and pay for their healthcare & college tuition.
      So yeah What A WASTE!.
      Every single penny of these missions goes to pay for the salary of an AMERICAN ENGINEER.

      \You are right, quit wasting $$ on high tech stuff in the US and send it to Pakistan so they can make their children smarter and our kids can continue to get third class educations in the US.

      You people think we just put this cash on the rocket and launch it into space.

      The truth is that we spend every penny of these "wastes" right here in the US.

      November 26, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
    • Ramon F. Herrera

      Fortunately, some of us can walk and chew gum at the same time.

      November 26, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
  17. Matt

    It doesn't matter how old I get, this stuff always fascinates me. And it's great to know that as backwards as we can be as a country sometimes, America is still the leader in space exploration.. (and all you people saying we cant' afford it can hush)

    One thing though, and I know this is a moral/ ethical question, but when will we start 'seeding' the surface with lichen? If terraforming will take generations, why are we waiting?

    November 26, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
    • Ramon F. Herrera

      "America is still the leader in space exploration"

      Not for long, I am afraid. The Japanese and Chinese are going to the moon while our project was canned by the budget cutters.

      November 26, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
  18. jimzcarz

    At least when we spend money on NASA we get a fireworks show "too boot" That's the American way right there..
    Anyway, We did this... Some of you don't feel any pride or nationalism when we pull off something as great as this.
    Or are you complaining because You think NASA is the reason your unemployed. We each achieve greatness through hard work and perseverance and NASA has been working again.Great job to all involved.

    November 26, 2011 at 12:17 pm |
    • fred miller

      Maybe now we can send a man to the MOON??

      November 26, 2011 at 12:19 pm |
  19. Marty

    The space program is just welfare for unneeded scientists and engineers. We have a national debt of 14 trillion dollars that we can't pay off. We went another trillion dollars in debt just this year alone. We have 9-1/2% unemployment. And we are at war. But instead of using this money to do something useful, we will "prove" for the tenth time what we already knew 100 years ago, that there is water on Mars. Pure research has its place. But this is more like junk research. End it already.

    November 26, 2011 at 11:59 am |
    • Andrew

      Marty, with all due respect, we ARE doing something useful: we're exploring and learning about our planetary neighborhood. When you stop exploring and learning, you stop growing. When you stop growing, you have no future.

      November 26, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
      • Aimee

        We won't have a future when the young people of this nation have no real educations. High schools have lowered requirements and colleges are getting more expensive each year. Soon only the privately educated and wealthy will be able to even afford a college education if things keep going the way they are. Where is our future then?

        November 26, 2011 at 2:06 pm |
    • fred miller

      2.5 billion would have payed our national debt for at least twenty minutes...

      November 26, 2011 at 12:13 pm |
    • asdad

      This is a godo way to spend money. Invading Iraq for 2 trillion dollars is not

      November 26, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
    • fred miller

      Just like the military is welfare for uneducated unneeded workers with limited skills, like fence-watching,and potato peeling....We need the military as the employer of LAST resort....

      November 26, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
    • really

      This project was planned and developed years ago. The money was spent already way before this launch. The contractors surely wanted their money up front to build the probe. This money most likely came from a 2008 budget, or before....so get off the money part!

      November 26, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
    • SG

      Marty,

      These type of missions pay my salary, put food in my children's mouths and pay for their healthcare & college tuition.
      So yeah What A WASTE!.
      Every single penny of these missions goes to pay for the salary of an AMERICAN ENGINEER.

      You are right, quit wasting $$ on high tech stuff in the US and send it to Pakistan so they can make their children smarter and our kids can continue to get third class educations in the US.

      You people think we just put this cash on the rocket and launch it into space.

      The truth is that we spend every penny of these "wastes" right here in the US.

      Maybe we should spend a few Billions more $$ on some sports memorabilia so we can each have another giant foam finger to put on our walls....
      More money was spent last year on washing our cars.

      November 26, 2011 at 1:36 pm |
  20. jeff spicoli

    look out gawd!...we're coming for your stank ass!

    November 26, 2011 at 11:47 am |
  21. gerald

    They will not find life on mars. Life did not begin by accident. Oh I suppose God could have created some life there as well. It would be interesting if they only found one form of life on mars though I guess. The macro evolutionists wouldn't like that. Though I suppose it would be interesting if they found multiple microbes as well. Evolution does not prove there is no God. PS I am fine with Micro evolution. Just thinking out loud.

    November 26, 2011 at 11:42 am |
    • fred miller

      Maybe they will find Obingo's birth certificate, or an American voter with some form of intelligence...I doubt it though, doesn't seem to exist

      November 26, 2011 at 11:47 am |
      • aaron

        there is no intelligent at fred miller's house.

        November 26, 2011 at 12:23 pm |
      • fred miller

        OUCH....that really hurts....BUT coming from a fool like you I will take it as a compliment...THANKS...PS your monkey boy IS a complete failure, I assume you are also thats why you need him...to continue the handouts that allow your miserable existence...OBAMA in prison 2012

        November 26, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
      • fred miller

        You know my meetings are on wednesdays...dumb assss

        November 26, 2011 at 12:33 pm |
    • Phil

      "life did not being by accident"

      That is your opinion - but you're wrong. More interestingly, it was not an "accident". Lightning did not strike a puddle and suddenly, life... It was a very slow process over the course of billions of years and evolved from there.

      If science is too hard, turn to religion. It simplifies everything with the answer of "god dunit".

      November 26, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
      • Aimee

        So how did it start? Where did the amoeba come from that began the billion year process? The science isn't hard, just not all that plausible with many guesses and assumptions made which is why there is still the word "theory" at the end of big bang and why it is still called the THEORY of evolution

        November 26, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
      • Conky2012

        Rofl, why are you explaining how life began as if you have a clue how it happened? Exact definition of an idiot.

        November 26, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
      • gerald

        I have more science by accident than you have on purpose. I have nothing against science. It's just your bigotry speaking. You wave around some theory at me that you have no proof for and then tell me I am wrong. Funny. There is more proof for God than for how life began.

        November 26, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
    • Kevin

      The whole "macro" and "micro" line is a typical creationist dodge. There is no magic stop sign in the DNA that prevents any further genetic drift.

      Perhaps if you get your science information from real science sources instead of the "Pastor Dave's" of the world. The problem is that "Pastor Dave" is just as ignorant about science as you are.

      November 26, 2011 at 1:52 pm |
      • gerald

        I am an engineer and have more science in my life by accident than you have on purpose. I have studied geology and have a degree in it. My views are not from "pastor dave". When you can prove to me that in the chain of evolution one species became another then I will be fine agreeing with you. You can't is all. It's your opinion and you have no proof which is what Christians are criticized for.

        November 26, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
      • Kevin

        Gerald claims to have a degree in geology, and claims to know a lot of science. Yet we know this is a lie. How do we know it's a lie?

        Because he uses the prototypical demand to "prove" something. If Gerald really did have a valid science degree, he would have known that in science we don't prove things, we explain things. Proofs are for maths and ethanol.

        He also claims there is no such thing as speciation. When in fact we have numerous examples.

        I guess my question to Gerald would be, "why do you fundiots lie"?

        November 26, 2011 at 10:34 pm |
  22. James456

    2.5 billion? While I realize these funds were probably approved years ago, lets fact facts. Space exploration has always been about preserving bragging rights for the country. Is it really that important that we can say we were the first to discover something on a distant planet? Not when people are jobless and the country is on the brink of economic colapase. That 2.5 billion could be better spent on rebuilding our crumbline infastructure, hiring more quality teachers, feeding the poor, etc. I'd rather brag about a country that takes care of its own, then one that was the first to find something on Mars.

    November 26, 2011 at 11:37 am |
    • rbosse

      James 456. Using that kind of logic. That this is just for "bragging Rights" is a little naive (no insult intended). Using that premise, we should stop funding archeology, paleontology, programs for the arts... and the list goes on and on. I agree, we do need to cut spending, but this $2.5 billion over 5ish years is pennies compared to the 15 trillion spent by the federal government over the same time period. That's a little more than 1/10th of one percent of the national budget. Every Department in the US needs to have huge cuts but in this case it really is just a drop of water in a huge ocean and the project was completed in 2008 BEFORE the economic crash. It would have been a huge waste of money not to use it.

      November 26, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
      • really

        JUST WHAT I HAVE BEEN SAYING. THANK YOU!!!!

        November 26, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
      • Aimee

        I can see how you can think using that logic we should stop funding for archeology and paleontology. I completely agree there. Let's stop funding those as well. We need to worry about what is happening now and not focus on the past. There are gangs killing people every day yet we are funding crap we shouldn't be worried about. How about throw some military forces in the ghetto of los angeles?

        I do think it is silly that you would say funding the arts is the same thing though. People who participate in the arts do better in school. And in fact, arts programs are some of the first to get cut when schools have to scale back.

        And who cares if this money was spent back in 2008. It shouldn't have been spent then at all. Schools have been failing long before then. That money should be investing in our future on this planet and bettering the lives of people here.

        November 26, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
    • SG

      These type of missions pay my salary, put food in my children's mouths and pay for their healthcare & college tuition.
      So yeah What A WASTE!.
      Every single penny of these missions goes to pay for the salary of an AMERICAN ENGINEER.

      You are right, quit wasting $$ on high tech stuff in the US and send it to Pakistan so they can make their children smarter and our kids can continue to get third class educations in the US.

      You people think we just put this cash on the rocket and launch it into space.

      The truth is that we spend every penny of these "wastes" right here in the US.

      November 26, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
      • Aimee

        You are one person in a country of millions who are receiving sub par educations because money is allocated poorly. Yes, you may have gone to college and should receive something for that but what about all the people who could go to college and can't because of the cost?

        November 26, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
  23. Nobody

    Thumbs UP JPL!

    November 26, 2011 at 11:20 am |
  24. l h woeltjen

    A century from now the only thing that will be important about this year will be this successful launch. Congratulations to the NASA team.

    November 26, 2011 at 11:18 am |
  25. Ron

    It is amazing that humankind has the technology to accomplish such a mission.

    November 26, 2011 at 11:18 am |
  26. AngryYuppie

    Congrats to the engineering and science team! It's always great to see when the limits of engineering and science are pushed to their limits.

    November 26, 2011 at 11:10 am |
  27. Aimee

    How about we put this money towards something more useful instead of wasting it in space. If we find signs of life on Mars what is it going to do for us? Are we then going to try to create a way for people to live there? I just don't get it

    November 26, 2011 at 10:58 am |
    • GoRemote

      That's because you're dumb, and knowledge is wasted on you.

      November 26, 2011 at 11:03 am |
      • I-AM-THAT-I-AM

        Dumb? You're being awful kind to this idiot...

        November 26, 2011 at 11:24 am |
      • Aimee

        Yeah, I'm dumb because I choose not to think it is beneficial to send something in to space to prove something we already know. We know there is no life there now. Tell me exactly what it will do for us if we find out there may have been life there a long time ago?

        November 26, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
    • Rob

      There will always be problems on earth. Space exploration enriches us a species. Big picture.

      November 26, 2011 at 11:11 am |
    • truth hurts

      That $2.5 Billion isn't spent in space. Its spent on Earth and more specifically the U.S. That money went to American Universities and Scientists, the rocket is an American rocket paying American contractors, with American children in American schools. And all of the technological advancements that have come from the space program allows you to sit in front of your computer which came from space and defense programs and post a message on the internet developed by the military, and question how useful any of these things are.

      November 26, 2011 at 11:13 am |
      • fred miller

        I thought Al Gore invented the computer, right after he invented global warming??

        November 26, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
    • I-AM-THAT-I-AM

      Let me guess, you were a Fashion major in college?

      November 26, 2011 at 11:26 am |
      • Aimee

        Do you really think someone questioning the reason why money is being wasted exploring space that we have no reason to occupy would major in fashion? That would be completely idiotic and a waste of my own personal money. As would have majoring in psychology or sociology or a number of other majors people choose and just end up working at Walmart or the equivalent. I choose useful things, not waste.

        November 26, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
    • Ron

      The data collected in these missions will give scientists knowledge to formulate plans for future deep space exploration and perhaps colonization. Imagine if there is a potable water source on Mars. Possibilities are endless. Next, we need to send monkeys or perhaps even the US Congress, to check it out first.

      November 26, 2011 at 11:26 am |
    • James456

      Why is it "dumb" that we question where our tax dollars are going? It actually "dumb" and "idiotic" to let the government keep wasting money when we have a major budget crisis.

      November 26, 2011 at 11:46 am |
      • Fred Miller is a red neck hick

        The only dumb thing about it is your ignorance on the matter.

        china is catching up big time in regards to space exploration and it won't be long until they have a military base on the moon fitting with nukes capable of dropping death anywhere on the planet. If the US Govt' doesn't keep improving the science then they've already lost.

        November 26, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
      • really

        I guess dumb is not realizing that this project was planned and developed years ago. The money was spent already way before this launch. The contractors surely wanted their money up front to build the probe. This money most likely came from a 2008 budget, or before....so get off the money part! It has nothing to do with the current situation. I do hope that was clear enough!

        November 26, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
      • Aimee

        Who really cares that is was planned years ago? Schools have been struggling for years to maintain programs that keep kids in schools. Graduation requirements are being lowered to allow for less classes being offered. I know the high school I graduated from had to drop classes in 2004. Students went from taking 8 classes to 7 and then to only 6. We aren't doing our future any favors here.

        November 26, 2011 at 1:55 pm |

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