Curiosity Goes to Mars: NASA's Rover Looks for Life-Friendly Environments

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Besieged by budget cuts and diminished by the end of the shuttle era, NASA got a welcome shot in the arm in August as mission controllers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., watched their latest interplanetary emissary guide itself to a safe landing on Mars. Curiosity's arrival on the Red Planet ignited a firestorm of enthusiasm for space sciences, as millions followed the spectacular touchdown online.

The rover's landing included a hypersonic parachute ride, then an acrobatic sky-crane maneuver involving a retrorocket-powered descent stage that lowered the rover to the planet's surface on nylon cables. Christened "Seven Minutes of Terror" by the JPL team, the rover's entry, descent and landing were broadcast live over NASA's TV network--and appeared on the big screen in New York City's Times Square, where cheers erupted when the rover touched Martian soil around 1:30 a.m. on August 6 (SN: 8/25/12, p. 5).

Even the mission's scientists and engineers began to attract rock star--like followings. There was "Elvis Guy"--entry, descent and landing lead Adam Steltzner, sporting a shellacked, lofty coif--and "Mohawk Guy" Bobak Ferdowsi, who rocked a star-spangled 'do. In an on-air phone call to mission control, President Barack Obama praised the team for exemplifying the best of "American know-how and ingenuity," and for reaching beyond Earth to explore the vast unknown.

Its harrowing journey completed, Curiosity is now well into its primary mission: to search for evidence of past, and perhaps present, life-friendly environments on Mars.

"What we'd like to do is to begin to characterize habitable environments," says project scientist John Grotzinger of Caltech. That task includes looking for signs of organic carbon and an energy source that could have powered Martian microbes in the distant past. …