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Curiosity's Mars landing is only the beginning

Published August 6, 2012 11:53 pm

Future research • Scientists excited for data from the best-equipped rover yet.
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When a series of complicated maneuvers allowed Curiosity to touch down safely on Mars late Sunday, the scientific community rejoiced after 36 weeks of worry.

But the excitement over the landing was just the beginning.

"This is kind of a watershed moment. This is the most spritzed-up, outfitted rover that has ever gone to Mars," said Marjorie Chan, professor of geology at the University of Utah. "Scientists will be comparing before and after Curiosity."

Chan, who has won several NASA grants, was invited to attend the launch of Curiosity in November and said the successful landing has brought her experience full-circle.

"It is a wonder of science and technology at its very best," she said. "I can hardly wait to see the images of geologic diversity and analyses Curiosity will send home."

She has worked on comparisons of terrain on Earth and Mars since 2004 and is excited by how much scientists have learned about Mars in just the past decade. In the past, the planet was thought to be made mostly of basalt. Now its known to be a dynamic landscape that is shaped by wind and water, she said.

Curiosity landed in Gale Crater, next to a nearly four-mile high mountain that has layers of rock it can dig into with its rock-vaporizing laser.

"We should be able to see a lot of Mars' history that has been preserved in these layers," Chan said. "There is a lot of potential for finding evidence of habitable environments where organisms could have lived in the past. I'm very hopeful."

During the first week, Curiosity will deploy its main antenna, raise a mast containing cameras, its laser and other instruments, and take the first panoramic shot of its surroundings.

NASA will spend the initial weeks checking out Curiosity before embarking on the first drive. The rover will not scoop its first sample of Martian soil until mid-September at the earliest, and the first rock drilling is not expected until October or November.

The successful landing helps erase the mission's troubled beginnings. Curiosity was originally pegged at $1.6 billion and was scheduled to launch in fall 2009, but it encountered a cascade of technical hurdles and cost overruns.

NASA officials faced a difficult choice: rush to meet the launch date or wait 26 months until the next time Mars and Earth lined up in the proper positions.

They chose to wait, even though that added hundreds of millions of dollars to the price tag, bringing it to $2.5 billion.

Charles Elachi, director of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which operates Curiosity and many other planetary missions, defended the mission's cost and compared Sunday's exhilaration to an adventure movie.

"This movie cost you less than seven bucks per American citizen, and look at the excitement we got," Elachi said.

Even at the late hour, NASA's websites collapsed under the throngs attempting to view the new Mars photos.

"Tomorrow we're going to start exploring Mars," Elachi said. "And next week and next month and next year, we'll be bringing new discoveries every day, every week, to all of you."

Because Curiosity is powered by electricity generated by the heat from a chunk of plutonium, it could continue operating for years, perhaps decades, until it finally wears out.

That's good news for scientists, and those who just want to know more about the Red Planet.

"We've just landed this robot geologist at the bottom of layered rock. It's like giving a geologist on earth some really good instruments and putting them at the bottom of the Grand Canyon," said Seth Jarvis, director of the Clark Planetarium. "The exploration of Mars up until now has been the preface, and today is page one of chapter one. We're going to learn a lot about Mars."

He looks at the Curiosity mission as a step toward sending humans to Mars. Curiosity will help answer questions about soil chemistry and what happens when Martian soil is exposed to cosmic rays. The planetarium will keep visitors updated with its dome theater program "Dateline: Mars" and will post regular blogs on the rover's latest discoveries.

Jarvis hopes to capture the imaginations of preschool-aged children he sees walking on the replica of Martian terrain at the planetarium. "I could be looking at the Neil Armstrong of Mars."

While looking for proof of habitable environments on Mars, Curiosity also will sniff the air for chemicals such as methane, which is a byproduct of living organisms.

But it's the unexpected findings that intrigue Patrick Wiggins, NASA/JPL solar system ambassador to Utah.

"We don't know all of what they're going to find. That's one of the things that keeps bringing me back," he said. "I look forward to seeing the headline of X found, whatever that X might be."

The U.'s Chan also is excited about what might come from Curiosity's mission.

"It sets the tone for the next generation," she said. "I think it's just really exciting for young scientists to look toward the future. The kinds of things they could discover may be things we never dreamed possible."

Kenneth Chang of the New York Times News Service contributed to this report.

smcfarland@sltrib.com

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