JPL awaits Curiosity's answers

Scientists and engineers at Jet Propulsion Laboratory are working around the clock this week to monitor Curiosity, the largest-ever Mars rover, which was launched Saturday from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

“This is the most capable and complex science mission we ever sent to Mars,” Michael Watkins, NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission manager, said at JPL on Tuesday. “It's really an amazing machine.”

The mission is expected to last one Mars year, or two Earth years, once it lands at about 5 p.m. Aug. 5. More than 200 scientists around the world are involved in the project, with 250 engineers at JPL working on keeping the rover healthy and ensuring that it lands at its desired location in the Red Planet's Gale Crater.

“We have to do quite a bit of detective work to understand what it was really like 3 billion years ago,” Watkins said. “So we do the best we can to pick a site that looks like it had water.”

Daniel Limonadi, who worked on the team that managed the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, is part of a group focusing on how Curiosity's arm will drill into Martian rocks and acquire samples from the soil. Although the rover isn't scheduled to land for eight months, Limonadi, a surface, sampling and science engineer at JPL, said the team is busy testing drilling into rocks.

Limonadi said the U.S. has not drilled on another planetary body since the Apollo mission brought back samples of the moon. “Nobody has ever drilled rocks on Mars before,” he said.

The technology that will drill rocks into powder includes an X-ray diffraction instrument to identify minerals in the powdered rock samples and a laser-firing instrument for inspecting rock compositions from afar.

“It took three generations of drilling hardware to really get it to work how they wanted,” Limonadi said. “One of the things we're rediscovering is drilling on another planet is challenging.”

Detailed information from the samples will be transmitted through a small antenna on the rover from the surface of Mars to NASA's Deep Space Network.

Still, the mission might bring nothing back.

“It's not definite that the mission will find those organic building blocks, and part of the reason is that it's hard to find them in Earth rocks that are that old,” Watkins said. “It could take months, or even a year, of driving before we get to the very best stuff.”

But the rover, even if it doesn't find microbes, will help NASA in its next mission, he said.

“I think understanding the evolution of life, the origin of life, is one of the fundamental questions of science and of mankind,” Watkins said. “We want to understand if we are the only ones.”

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