NASA Curiosity Rover

By Alex Wolinsky

In the wee hours of the morning on Aug. 5, after a voyage of more than eight months and “seven minutes of terror,” NASA’s rover Curiosity touched down on the surface of Mars. The mission will be the first to the planet since 1976 whose primary purpose is to search for life or, more likely, the bases for its existence.

Why the excitement surrounding this particular mission? After all, if the United States launched its first successful Mars mission in 1964 and has since discovered no conclusive evidence of life, why might Curiosity return more favorable results?

First, NASA has in the past decade found a series of indications that the planet might in fact be capable of supporting life forms: The Gale Crater, a vast indentation in Mars’ surface and Curiosity’s landing site, contains minerals only present in conjunction with water; methane gas, which is almost always a byproduct of life, has been found erupting from various points on the planet; organic matter was discovered on a Martian meteorite that recently fell to Earth. With these findings, in addition to other discoveries, scientists remain optimistic despite the failures of the past.

Additionally, Curiosity’s ability to gather relevant data immensely surpasses that of any mission of the past. The rover, which weighs about one ton, is comparable in size to a large automobile, and its scientific instruments are much larger — and more advanced — than those included in any previous vehicle, which will allow Curiosity to collect more material as well as analyze it more thoroughly. Furthermore, Curiosity made a flawless soft landing, meaning all of its equipment is perfectly intact, so — at least at the moment — its potential for novel discovery is highly promising.

Curiosity’s mission will primarily consist of taking geological samples of the Gale Crater and analyzing them for the one-time presence of water or other compounds conducive to the existence of life. Like previous missions, the rover will also capture photographs of the planet and perhaps even take video footage.

The exploration of the Gale Crater and the three-mile-high mountain it surrounds is currently scheduled to last two years, but if the previous two Mars rovers — each of which was to gather data for 13 weeks but continued (or continues, in the case of Opportunity) to do so for several years — are any indication, the mission could continue long after its projected termination date. Admittedly, the mysteries of Mars remain myriad, but Curiosity presents the greatest opportunity thus far to initiate a paradigm shift in our understanding of the enigmatic planet.

  • On Sunday, August 26: William J. Clancey, chief scientist of the Human-Centered Computing Intelligent Systems Division for NASA Ames Research Center, will discuss "Working on Mars: Voyages of Scientific Discovery," in a Commonwealth Club program at the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose. Details