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On its face, NASA’s latest mission—set to touch down this month—doesn’t look like much of a crowd-pleaser. The job of the agency’s new Mars rover, Curiosity, is not to discover life on the planet, but to ascertain whether the conditions ever existed to support it. “If microorganisms had evolved on Mars,” says John Grotzinger, the mission’s chief scientist, “can we find a nice place for them to have lived?”
So, more real estate agent than space ranger, then.
Yet to hear Grotzinger describe it, the mission is actually quite exciting. For one thing, Curiosity bristles with next-generation doodads, including a portable weather station, a rock-vaporizing laser and a “dust removal tool” (that is, a broom). “It’s three or four rooms of equipment jammed into something the size of a microwave oven,” he says.
Another thrilling aspect is the craft’s ability to touch down within a 4-by-12-mile landing zone. This will not only enable Curiosity to be more precise about the rocks it looks at, but also lessen the odds that it will encounter a 900-foot pothole—which, says Grotzinger, would represent a good deal more than a scientific setback. “You have people working on a project like this for 10 years; it becomes your entire life,” he says. “Losing one of these things is like losing a child.” —CHRIS WRIGHT