The Mars rover Curiosity, now just days from landing on the Martian surface, is something of a technological marvel, unlike anything that has come before it. It packs some of the most high-tech scientific hardware ever sent into space aboard a robotic spacecraft, delicate tools and complex systems that will allow it to conduct the most sophisticated science ever performed on the surface of Mars.
But first NASA engineers have to slow it from 13,000 miles per hour to zero in just seven minutes and place carefully into an extremely hostile environment. It's a delicate act, an art form really, but it's been done before. Curiosity doesn't stand alone, but on the shoulders of giants.
If you could pick just one, would you A) send a new lander to Mars, B) send a robotic visitor to a comet, or C) send a ship to float in the hydrocarbon oceans of Titan?
NASA will pick one winner from these three projects, the space agency announced this week. The project will be capped at $425 million, not including the price of launch.
NASA's search for extraterrestrial life could result in missions such as a balloon or boat-like capsule on Titan, or even a complex three-part Mars mission to return a Martian sample to Earth. Until then, scientists have focused attention on both Earth and Mars regions which could hold organic materials or microfossils.
Extraterrestrial life hunters gathered this week near Houston at what amounts to a biennial Woodstock for astrobiologists, and a NASA teleconference today gave a glimpse into the proceedings. Some of the best and the brightest shared their latest findings and discussed future missions to search for signs of life on Mars, Europa and other exotic solar system destinations.