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Will NASA's $2.5 billion Mars rover crash on Sunday? (+video)

NASA's Curiosity Mars rover faces a terrifying seven-minute plunge through the Red Planet's atmosphere using a first-of-its-kind landing system involving a supersonic parachute and a 'sky-crane' that will lower the rover to the Martian surface.

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Phoenix conducted science experiments for five months as part of NASA’s search for habitable zones in our solar system. Among its discoveries was the presence of water ice a few inches below the surface. In the Martian soil it also found perchlorate, which, when concentrated, lowers the freezing point of water below Martian temperatures; moreover, some microorganisms obtain energy from the substance.

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"The Phoenix team keenly awaits the detailed analysis of the soil mineralogy and chemistry at Gale Crater near the equator to compare with the polar values that Phoenix found in close contact to an ice layer," said Peter Smith, leader of that mission at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

"Important questions on the history of volatiles and the fate of organics are yet to be answered sufficiently. …Curiosity has the ability to make major contributions," Smith told SPACE.com. "Curiosity represents the hard work of hundreds of dedicated individuals and builds on the return from all previous missions." [How Mars Rover Curiosity Will Explore Mars (Video)]

Life on Mars: Cousin or alien?

While Curiosity is not a search-for-life mission, but rather a wheeled exploration for habitable environments, its work on Mars will help set the stage for future life-detection quests — and could move closer the day of the first footfall on the Red Planet.

"I feel like I’m kind of a minor stockholder in a much larger enterprise," said Kim Stanley Robinson, an American science fiction writer acclaimed for his award-winning trilogy "Red Mars," "Green Mars" and "Blue Mars."

Robinson spoke at Spacefest IV in June in Tucson, offering a look at the future of Mars exploration — but also waving a warning flag.

"It seems to me that we should not be using the analogy of Mars as the frontier or Wild West," Robinson said. He believes a complicated decision tree awaits those engaged in future Mars surveillance and the potential for finding of life there.

"If we find life on Mars, either cousin or alien, it will still be one of the major findings in scientific history. And we’ll have to consider how to study it …what kind of protocols we’ll need to set up," Robinson said.

"It’s going to be an interesting problem," he told his Spacefest IV audience. "Can we satisfy ourselves as to whether there’s life on Mars — or not — without also contaminating it to the point where it becomes confusing to see whether that life we’ve found there is indigenous or introduced by us?"

The hunt is going to be strange. It may be that life on Mars is hunkered down deep and hard to find, Robinson said.

Can humans and Martian microbes co-inhabit? Robinson envisioned subterranean Mars life blissfully doing its thing while humans do their thing topside. "I think the most danger would be wrecking Mars life," Robinson said.

Leonard David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. He is a winner of last year's National Space Club Press Award and a past editor-in-chief of the National Space Society's Ad Astra and Space World magazines. He has written for SPACE.com since 1999.

Copyright 2012 SPACE.com, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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