August 5th, 2012
12:00 PM ET

Rover to search for clues to life on Mars

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.”

Photo gallery: Exploring Mars

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.”

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Filed under: In Space • Mars
soundoff (32 Responses)
  1. 4thdimnsnal

    Mankind 'can' reach the stars! It's not surprising how Mankind's ingenuity and problem solving skills can overcome any technical obstacle.

    The only problem that Mankind would face is not being able to re-engineer its indifference toward another society. The truth dictates that Mankind's failure can be seen vividly by any civilization that looks upon Mankind's vengeful society which thrives on greed, discrimination and inequality. It is an unforgivably unfortunate flaw in the DNA of Mankind.

    Socialism, as human's know it, is an undeniable fact for peaceful coexistence among emerging civilizations when waging fairness and complacency. The people of Earth can not benefit from its resources peacefully and fairly because this type of policy is NOT widely accepted. How can you expect to advance while your people starve, suffer and fight for survival?

    Don't expect to be welcomed wholeheartedly by other civilizations if you can not wholeheartedly love yourselves.

    August 7, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
    • ronlong

      BRAVO! Excellent comment. Good advice for all of us.

      August 7, 2012 at 8:15 pm |
  2. walt1948

    Congrats NASA on the successful landing. I'm Delighted. I will be eagerly watching NASA television for more of your successes with Mars! Great Job!

    August 6, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
    • walt1948

      Forgot to mention that I am not young; will be 65 in January. But I love the program and hope to live long enough to see and hear of Human Presence On Mars... will be interesting....

      August 6, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
  3. Anita

    This is so exciting. I cant wait to see what they find. Congrats to NASA!

    August 6, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
  4. What

    We will trash this planet before we get there, oh wait, we already have garbage there from the last exploration. Maybe something does lives there and wants to be left the effin alone, but that is OK because I guess the govt. thinks they own everything including MARS. This is a distraction for the little minded TV watchers

    August 6, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
    • Laura

      Hey, Rovers that are testing and exploring a place we can not get to is not trashing a planet. Its science and is going to give answers to a lot of questions. Yes several rovers are still on mars and are no longer operational but its not like it is here on earth nobody is dumping trash out there car window or tossing whatever they feel like into a land fill. These robots are there to do a job when they die they die and if humanity ever manages to go there I'm sure they be removed for study of there condition after being on that planet or if its a minor problem and they still have a use for it made operational once again. So saying the government thinks it owns everything, well maybe it does but there has been no evidence ever that mars is inhabited so no harm no foul. Exploring is learning and that's what is going on here, will continue to go on because human curiosity demands it so keep your dislike of the government to yourself because this is about learning something new.

      August 7, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
  5. PF Dutton

    It is incredible that we take what amounts to an automobile, aim it at a point of light millions of miles away and land it softly not only on the planet but within the exact location on the planet.

    August 6, 2012 at 11:44 am |
  6. Allien

    This is awesome, I want a House on Mars! How much is 1sqm price close to the Nasa Station?

    August 6, 2012 at 9:40 am |
  7. HenningBjerre

    I hope everything works perfectly. This will interesting to see what it will find there. Best Wishes for Curiosity!!!

    August 6, 2012 at 12:31 am |
  8. Wesley

    I am very excited to see this!! It's not often we see such science in action.

    August 5, 2012 at 7:28 pm |
  9. Portland tony

    I sure hope this project has a good systems engineering and integration dude. This landing operation seems like something out of a "Rube Goldberg" concept. Whew! Anyway Godspeed this mission and on to the unknown. :)

    August 5, 2012 at 3:59 pm |

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