Program note: Tune in to CNN.com/Live and CNN Mobile for live coverage of the Curiosity's landing on Mars, starting at 11:30 p.m. ET Sunday.
Here’s the bottom line, says Ashwin Vasavada: “If life were obvious we would find it with this rover. If there’s some texture of the rock, some clear sign of vegetation or whatever, you might see microbial life. We don’t expect to see that necessarily, but if it were that obvious, we’d find it.”
Vasavada is the Mars Science Lab Mission deputy project manager. For Vasavada and the rest of the mission team, that would be like discovering the Holy Grail of Mars. At best, the likelihood is remote.
But this mission could and should get them infinitely closer to answering the Mars life question, scientists say, than any previous Mars venture.
The centerpiece of the mission is a 2,000-pound, car-sized rover named Curiosity. It is bigger and more sophisticated than any rover ever sent to Mars. You could call Curiosity the Sherlock Holmes of rovers. It has the capability to do science that is far more than just elementary, hunting for the building blocks of life.
“One of the key goals is to look for the key ingredients that life requires,” says Vasavada, “Water, of course, is one of the most, one of the things we always look for on Mars.”
If Curiosity makes it safely onto the Martian surface, it is going to a place where scientists believe water might once have been present. It’s called the Gale Crater. On one side of the landing site is a crater wall and on the other a huge mountain. Engineer Adam Steltzner is the lead on landing, “We’re landing quite literally between a rock and a hard place.”
Scientists say one can think of the landing site like the Grand Canyon. Each layer of rock represents a period in history. In this case, the history of Mars dating back billions of years to a time when it was most Earthlike and most likely to have sustained life.
Says Vasavada, “So, the rover over two years climbs up this mountain. We’ll be able to see different environments that represent different periods of time and ask the habitability question along the way.”
To answer these questions, Curiosity had to be equipped with unique tools. There’s a laser that scans for tantalizing targets. When the science team finds one, the rover’s hammer drill smashes the rock to tiny pieces and then deposits the samples into the rover’s onboard chemistry laboratory. This lab can sniff out organic materials such as carbon.
The vast majority of Curiosity’s tasks will be orchestrated by the science team on Earth. Each day they will send up a set of commands for the rover to carry out. Because it takes 15 minutes for a signal to travel one way between Earth and Mars, it would be impossible to conduct the mission in real time.
Jessica Samuels handles the rover’s surface operations. Samuels says, “So if you imagine half an hour just to find out if the first thing you wanted to do was successful or not just isn’t the way that we could operate our spacecraft on Mars.”
While the mission is expected to last two years, past rovers have gone much longer. At the end of the mission the science team hopes to finally understand whether Mars could ever have sustained life or maybe even still does. “We’re taking a long-term view with this mission,” says Vasavada, “We’re not trying to get a home run early on, but over the two years that we’ll be operating we’ll build up a really convincing story about the habitability of Mars.”