Mars Science Laboratory: The Robotic Search for Life
To follow up the Mars Exploration Rovers, NASA launched the Mars Science Laboratory in 2011. This much larger rover, named Curiosity, has radioisotope power supplies that permit operations through the long Martian winter, when solar-powered rovers must "hibernate" and use their limited battery power to keep vital equipment warm. The rover measures mineral properties and is searching for evidence of past or present life.
A Mars Sample Return Mission
A future mission could land on the surface of Mars to pick up samples collected by a rover, blast off again, rendezvous with another spacecraft waiting in orbit, and return the samples to Earth. Such a mission might target the kinds of water-deposited rocks found by the Opportunity rover, or visit other interesting sites located by the Mars Science Laboratory.
Looking Outward: Worlds Beyond Our Solar System
Astronomers have detected hundreds of planets around other stars. This map shows the location of "nearby" extra-solar planets. Someday we may find small, rocky worlds like those of our own inner solar system. What might they be like? Watery Earth, scorched Venus, or desert Mars?
Understanding Habitable Zones
Within our solar system, only Earth supports abundant life. This is largely due to a favorable distance from the Sun, vast amounts of water, gravity strong enough to hold a thick atmosphere, and a liquid-metal core that provides a magnetic field to shield us from solar flares. Whether life exists on planets around other stars depends on how often these same conditions occur. So it's important for us to understand when and why Venus and Mars became so inhospitable.
Enduring Mysteries and New Challenges
New discoveries about Mars raise fresh questions and pose challenges for future exploration. Did the wet period on Mars allow life to develop, and if so how long did it survive? If humans choose to go to Mars, what are the resources and hazards that await them? What do the changes in climate on Mars teach us about our own planet, and about worlds around other stars?
As it has since Giovanni Schiaparelli and Percival Lowell probed its mysteries with their telescopes, Mars continues to captivate our imagination.