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How livable is the Red Planet? NASA's Curiosity Mars rover seeks to find out. (+video)

NASA's Curiosity Mars rover, scheduled to touch down on the Red Planet on Sunday night, will look for water molecules, measure radiation levels, and seek other signs of habitability.

By Nola Taylor ReddSPACE.com / July 31, 2012

This illustration depicts the moment immediately after the Curiosity Mars rover touches down on the Red Planet.

NASA

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Mars, our next-door neighbor in the solar system, hasn't given up many of its secrets yet. But when NASA's newest Mars rover, Curiosity, lands on the Red Planet next week, scientists hope to unlock a few more.

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This 11-minute animation depicts key events of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission, which will launch in late 2011 and land a rover, Curiosity, on Mars in August 2012.

The centerpiece of the Mars Science Laboratory mission, the Curiosity rover comes packed with a slew of instruments to study not only today's Martian surface, but also the surface of the past.

The overarching strategy of NASA's Mars Exploration Program has long been to follow the water, and Curiosity is no exception. Following up on clues provided by previous missions, the newest rover will seek answers to questions about climate, geology, human exploration, and of course, whether or not the Red Planet could have once hosted life.

Where might Martian life make its home?

Curiosity won't be searching for life directly. Project scientist John Grotzinger pointed out that such a search would require more sophisticated scientific equipment than even the advanced rover carries, if not a full-scale sample return mission. Instead, Curiosity will be searching for places where life could have evolved. [11 Amazing Things NASA's Huge Mars Rover Can Do]

"Curiosity is not a life mission," Grotzinger told SPACE.com. "What we are doing in this mission is exploring for habitable environments."

Because water is considered essential for the development of the only life known to exist — life on Earth — scientists are focusing on wet areas, past and present.

A potentially habitable environment would also contain chemical and mineralogical signatures suggesting the presence of an energy source that microorganisms could have used at some point. It might also boast signs of organic carbon, thought to be one of the building blocks of life.

The previous rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, were equipped to search for only water in the environments they explored. Grotzinger compared them to robotic geologists.

"Curiosity is both a robotic geologist and a robotic geochemist," able to look for more than just water, he said.

Of course, even if Curiosity finds ample environments where life could have flourished, that doesn't necessarily mean that it did.

"It's entirely possible to find a habitable environment that was never inhabited, because life never originated," Grotzinger said.

Either way, the rover can help pinpoint some of the best Martian environments to search for life on future missions, perhaps making them less hit-and-miss.

What made a wet Mars dry?

In its distant past, a warmer Mars likely sported a thicker, wetter atmosphere, with water running across its surface. Today, the planet is dry and dusty, with most of its water thought to be trapped beneath the surface.

Curiosity will land at the base of Mount Sharp, which rises 3 miles (5 kilometers) from the center of the Gale Crater. Named for planetary geologist Robert Sharp, the mountain has layers that will be open to exploration by the rover.

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