From the June 2012 issue

Hunting for signs of martian life

NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory — aka Curiosity — will explore Gale Crater to see if the Red Planet could support life now or in the past.
By | Published: June 25, 2012 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
When the Mars Science Laboratory reaches Earth’s planetary neighbor the night of August 5/6, it will mark the culmination of an eight-month journey since it took off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in late November. If the cruise was relatively uneventful, the entry, descent, and landing phases will be anything but. Only about seven minutes will elapse from the time the spacecraft enters the thin martian atmosphere until Curiosity sets down in Gale Crater.

Once on the ground, the Curiosity rover will set off toward a mountain of layered sedimentary rocks that rises some 3 miles (5 kilometers) above the crater’s floor. Nicknamed Mount Sharp by the mission’s science team, the rocks there appear to span eras from the distant past, when Mars was much warmer and wetter than now, to the present day. Orbital scans of the crater show that the mountain and its surroundings once harbored liquid water in surface streams, which ultimately may have formed a giant lake. Scientists expect Curiosity to explore this region for at least two Earth years.

This video shows a detailed animation of Curiosity’s entire landing sequence followed by a depiction of the rover exploring the martian surface. If all goes according to plan, within the next couple of years, scientists may know whether Mars ever had the potential to host life.