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It was an historic week—Michael Phelps earned his record-breaking 22nd Olympic medal, Jamaica’s Usain Bolt celebrated his country’s 50th anniversary with a gold medal in the 100 meter run, sprinter Kirani James won Grenada’s first Olympic medal ever, South Africa’s Oscar Pistorius became the first paraplegic to compete in the Olympics, and gymnast Aly Raisman became the first American to win a gold medal in the floor exercises. As the Olympics mesmerized viewers worldwide, NASA scientists and space enthusiasts cheered for another historic event—the Mars rover, Curiosity, touched down on the surface of the Red Planet.

Outer space does not seem as daunting as it did when man first walked on 081212-3 the moon over fifty years ago. Today, missions to the moon, rovers on Mars, and discoveries of distant exoplanets seem routine; however, only 5% of all Mars rovers (American, Russian/Soviet, Japanese, and European) land successfully. Some do not launch from Earth successfully. Others malfunction in orbit. Still others fail during landing or once on Mars. Making it to Mars’ is not so easy.

On August 5, 2012, NASA’s latest rover, Curiosity, joined the ranks of the 5% when it touched down on Mars. Unleash your curiosity and discover more about the vehicle, its mission, and the challenges.

Curiosity At Work—

Curiosity is the most recent rover designed to travel Mars; it is NASA’s eyes on the ground. NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory introduces visitors to Curiosity. Learn about Curiosity’s parts with a 3-D tour of its parts. Familiarize yourself with Curiosity’s mission: where will it go, what scientists hope it will learn, what equipment it carries and why, and how it will communicate with earth-bound scientists. It is amazing that from millions of miles away. Curiosity will send messages home. Learn more about that communication process.

081212-7 One of the most difficult segments of the mission is landing on Mars. The descent through Mars’ atmosphere and landing on the surface is a process that must go perfectly. One misstep can result in failure. Play the interactive feature to follow Curiosity’s descent to Mars.  Listen to NASA scientists explain why they call the descent “Seven Minutes of Terror.” This infographic helps explain what makes the seven minute descent amazing and nerve-wracking. Watch images sent from Curiosity as it descended and read a play-by-play of the descent. Watch an animation of the descent paired with live action of NASA’s team as they followed Curiosity’s descent.

What happens now that Curiosity has landed safely? View the mission 081212-6 phases. Learn more about the first drive and the surface operations.  Curiosity will explore Gale Crater. NASA scientist Matthew Golombek explains why the crater is an ideal location for the rover to complete its mission. To follow Curiosity’s progress, monitor’s NASA’s What’s New page. You may also view images taken by Curiosity.

Follow the Water—

The crux of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program is to discover whether Mars might sustain (or has sustained) life. With this in mind, scientists follow a simple strategy: follow the water. Read more about NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, including the four broad goals that guide the program:

How do these goals help explain why scientists steered Curiosity to the Gale Crater?

081212-4 These are lofty goals for a planet so far away. It is up to the Mars Technology Program to design and to develop the technologies that conquer that distance and allow us to explore an inhospitable place. So far, Mars has been studied in three stages: via flybys, orbiters, and landers and rovers. What does a rover have in common with a person? How does each stage build on the discoveries, strengths, and weaknesses of the previous stage? How does each help achieve the goals of the MEP? What is the future of Mars exploration?