NASA holds breath as new Mars rover lands


An elaborate animation was released for what NASA describes as the hardest mission every attempted in planetary exploration. Putting the Curiosity rover onto Mars is just the beginning.

"Is it risky? Landing on Mars is always risky," said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program.

At a press conference on Monday, NASA and JPL talked about how they've been successful only 40 percent of the time when landing on Mars and this one, with a landing crane, as they call it, is filled with peril.

"EDL -- entry, descent, and landing -- is like a game of dominoes," said McCuistion. "If one of them is out of place, it is very likely that the last dominoes won't fall."

And that could greatly disappoint NASA geologist David Blake, Ph.D., who watched the press conference from NASA Ames in Mountain View. Not far away, in a room down a busy looking hall, he showed us one of the crucial instruments. It is 22 years of his life in the making.

Freedman: Would this be the culmination of a career?
Blake: I hope it is.

When the rover begins exploring an ancient lake bed known as Gale Crater, it will carry this X-ray Diffraction, X-ray fluorescence instrument that is the centerpiece of the mission.

"We want to open up the book of Mars history based on its minerals," said Blake.

Gale Crater is the perfect place for it because there is a mountain in the middle. Four billion years of Martian geology in layers towering 20,000 feet high. Curiosity will climb, dig samples, put them through the diffraction instrument, and read the story of how Mars developed.

"So effectively, it's just like going back in a time machine and looking at Mars 4 billion years ago and seeing what happened," said Blake.

Specifically, to read through minerals whether Mars ever had conditions in which life could develop.

"If we can just move that thing forward, put another brick in the wall, that will make me really happy," said Blake.

It's a planetary payoff, finally after 22 years of work. And after that, perhaps it will be a footnote in history.

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