Life on Mars? New rover to tackle old question

One day after the last space shuttle flight, NASA turned its attention to Mars. It said today the rover it plans to launch in November will land inside a crater that's as big as Connecticut and Rhode Island put together.

Scientists hope the new machine will solve a mystery: Has there ever been life on Mars? CBS News correspondent John Blackstone reports.

A $2.5 billion, car sized robot nicknamed "Curiosity" -- designed and built at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, Calif. is NASA's newest unmanned explorer. Officially it's called the "Mars Science Laboratory."

The three earlier rovers confirmed that Mars once had enough water to create oceans. Curiosity will search for signs of life.

NASA biologist Bob Koukol says all the images from Mars have hinted at the possibilities but don't provide proof.

"We don't expect to see Bambi walking across the surface of Mars or anything like that," he said. "If there is life, it is probably microbial."

Koukol has been keeping a close watch on the rover as it has been assembled and tested in a in a germ-free clean room, protected from outside contamination. The goal is to make sure no Earth creatures hitch a ride on curiosity.

"The last thing we want to have is to wind up on the front page of a newspaper ... with the giant headline that says, 'Life discovered on Mars' and then two days later there's a little story that goes 'Whoops it was something we took with us,'" Koukol said with a laugh.

Unlike previous Mars rovers that landed wrapped in air bags and bounced to a stop, Curiosity will make a rocket-controlled precision landing. It's a maneuver control systems manager Steven Lee has rehearsed over and over.

But the real thing will be the real test.

How tense is it going to be?

"From the entry to the landing is known at JPL as the six minutes of terror," Lee said. "We certainly are always on edge, but the six minutes themselves are certainly very tense moments because of lot of us have put many, many years of our careers and lives into this system."

While the Mars Science Laboratory is big and ambitious, the exploration of Mars with rovers started small. The Pathfinder, the first rover sent to Mars in 1997, is a fraction of Curiosity's size.

Pathfinder and the other Mars rovers operated on solar panels. Curiosity is powered by a small nuclear generator, providing energy day and night.

In the two years it's scheduled to operate Curiosity should travel about 13 miles across the surface of Mars, looking for something humans have been curious about for centuries -- whether there is life on the red planet.

  • John Blackstone

    From his base in San Francisco, CBS News correspondent John Blackstone covers breaking stories throughout the West. That often means he is on the scene of wildfires, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and rumbling volcanoes. He also reports on the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley and on social and economic trends that frequently begin in the West.