Mars Science Lab 'Curiosity' to Launch 'Extraterrestrial Real- Estate Appraisal'

Article excerpt

After a decade of "following the water," planetary scientists want to see if water co-existed with other critical environmental conditions that could have allowed simple forms of life to emerge.

Mars Science Laboratory, a one-ton chemistry lab on wheels set for launch Saturday morning from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, is geared for a unique mission.

Think "extraterrestrial real-estate appraisal," says Pamela Conrad, an astrobiologist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

We're not quite ready to hunt for life itself yet, and the MSL rover isn't designed to do so, say researchers taking part in the $2.5-billion mission to the red planet.

IN PICTURES: Exploring Mars

But after a decade of "following the water" - a necessary ingredient for life as researchers currently understand it - planetary scientists are moving to take the next critical step: see if water co-existed with other critical environmental conditions that could have allowed simple forms of life to emerge.

Organisms on Earth take the forms they do because they are adapted to their environments, MSL researchers explain. If humans eventually hunt for evidence of life itself on the Red Planet, or anywhere else, for that matter, knowing something about the environment organisms inhabit will yield clues about what the organisms were or are like.

"If a Tim Allen, 'Galaxy Quest,' alien rock creature were to come up and bang us on the head, we don't want to ignore it. That would be the 'Ah ha!' moment we'd regret having missed," says Steve Brenner, director of the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Gainesville, Fla.

For Mars, the incremental Holy Grail is finding organic carbon, the stuff of complex molecules that form the building blocks for life, according to John Grotzinger, a planetary scientist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif., and the mission's project scientist.

"It's a long shot, but we're going to try," he said during a prelaunch briefing this week..

Meteorites deposit organic compounds on the Martian surface all the time, but today's conditions are so harsh that the compounds are quickly destroyed, he explains.

Finding organic carbon captured in the layered rocks that the rover Curiosity will explore would indicate that at the time the layers were deposited, conditions on the surface at that location could well have been far more benign, allowing organic compounds to exist at the surface.

Set for launch at 10:02 a.m. Eastern Standard Time Saturday, Curiosity holds a TripTik that sets the rover into Mars' Gale Crater next August.

The oversized ding in Mars' crust is 96 miles across, about 3 miles deep, and sports a gently sloping mountain in its center that rises to a height comparable to California's Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states.

Some researchers crudely estimate the impact crater's age at between 3.5 billion and 3.8 billion years old.

After peering at images and sifting through mineral-composition data gathered from various orbiters circling Mars, mission planners settled on the crater and the mountain that vaults from its center because the crater walls and outcrops on the mountain's slopes bear Grand Canyon-like bands of different rock layers.

Clays are abundant at the mountain's base, testifying to a prolonged wet environment, Dr. …