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Curiosity's Mars exploration: Is it worth the money? (+video)

The search for life on Mars has captivated the imaginations of many, but it is costly. Some say it's time to cut spending on NASA's Mars missions, while others say the research is important in the quest for understanding the 'meaning of life.'  

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“If there’s life or past life on Mars, it means the chances that life exists somewhere else are much higher,” said David Paige, who studies the moon and terrestrial planets at UCLA. If Mars is barren, “it might make Earth more unique than we thought.”

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Some experts question the wisdom of focusing so intently on a single planet. Jupiter’s moon Europa, which is covered with an ice-encrusted ocean, could have the potential to harbor life; Saturn’s moon Titan, rich in organic chemistry, might as well.

“It’s like the person who loses their keys and only looks for them below the streetlight,” said David Jewitt, a planetary scientist at UCLA who studies comets.

But funds for planetary science are limited — and even those who favor a broader search admit that Mars remains the most practical site to explore.

A mission to Europa, for example, would take about six years to reach its destination. Curiosity’s trip to Mars takes about eight months.

Europa has other drawbacks too: For one, particles flung into space by Jupiter’s magnetic field would likely fry a spacecraft’s electronics in a matter of weeks, said Richard Greenberg, who studies the frozen moon at the University of Arizona.

“Personally, I love Europa,” he said. “But objectively, both it and Mars are great places to look for life.”

Regardless of whether life can be found beyond Earth, Mars exploration boosts U.S. prestige.

“A lot of the warmest feelings people have had around the world have had to do with the space program,” Munson said. “It’s hard to put a value on that.”

Space exploration is the ultimate status symbol. China and India have signaled their technological aspirations by establishing space programs. So have Iran, Pakistan, Venezuela, Israel, Mexico and dozens of other countries.

“I’m afraid if we step back, it will be decades before we get back to Mars,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., whose district includes NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge, where Mars missions are based. “We have the expertise now. No other countries have been able to do this.”

NASA has outperformed other space agencies by a wide margin, completing 13 successful missions (against five failures) since 1964. The Russians have had particularly bad luck, with 15 failed missions and only four partial successes.

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