Web edition: August 23, 2012
On August 5, after a journey lasting more than 8 months, a carlike rover carefully settled down onto the surface of Mars. The vehicle is basically a science lab. Its mission: to search for evidence that the Red Planet might once have hosted life — even if the organisms were only one-celled microbes.
The first stage of this mission — the landing — is “an amazing achievement,” observes Charles Bolden. He runs the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, which built and delivered the vehicle to Mars.
Several years ago, NASA scientists began considering the best place for Curiosity to conduct its experiments. Last year, the researchers chose Gale Crater. So that’s where the rover landed. A towering peak — Mount Sharp — rises from the center of this basin 150 kilometers (93 miles) wide. Curiosity will spend two years motoring around and exploring the crater floor. But probing the mountain will be the vehicle’s primary focus. As Curiosity moves by, it will shoot out a laser beam at the mountain and then direct onboard chemical samplers to “taste” the vaporized rock. Another onboard device can drill into rock, pulverizing it into a fine powder for the rover’s chemical samplers to taste.