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NASA's Curiosity could revolutionize our knowledge of Mars

August 6, 2012 |  9:03 am

Officials at NASA and Jet Propulsion Laboratory on Monday continued to celebrate the successful landing of the Mars rover Curiosity.

But the real goal of the mission — a  hunt for the building blocks of life and signs that Earth's creatures may not be alone in the universe — is just beginning.

At 10 a.m. PT, The Times will host a Google+ hangout with a representative of the Curiosity team as well as reporters who have been covering the story. You can submit questions below, on Google+ or on Twitter using the hashtag #asklatimes.

INTERACTIVE: Curiosity, from liftoff to landing

Curiosity is expected to revolutionize the understanding of Mars, gathering evidence that the planet is or was capable of fostering life, probably in microbial form.

The spacecraft is also expected to pave the way for important leaps in deep-space exploration, including bringing Martian rock or soil back to Earth for detailed analysis and, eventually, human exploration.

Curiosity is a full-fledged geochemistry lab on wheels, able to vaporize rocks, “taste” air samples and ingest dirt, then send the results of experiments home from 154 million miles away.

PHOTOS: JPL's faces of joy

Ensuring that all of Curiosity's instruments are working in proper fashion will take weeks. The rover is not expected to begin driving until early September, and will likely begin "scooping" samples several weeks later. Curiosity is expected to begin drilling into rocks later in the fall.

Applause erupted across the campus of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge and engineers inside mission control could be seen hugging and weeping with joy. Al Chen, an engineer on Curiosity's entry, descent and landing team, said the words that space scientists had been waiting on for 10 years: "Touchdown confirmed."

"We did it again!" another engineer shouted.

The landing site was so distant that the spacecraft's elaborate landing sequence had to be automated. The Earth also "set" below the Mars horizon shortly before landing, making even delayed direct communication with mission control impossible — and confirmation of Curiosity's fate tricky.


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