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The Mars mystique

After 50 years of missions to Mars, scientists are unlocking some of the mysteries surrounding a planet that has captivated mankind for millenniums. Will ­humans ever leave a boot print on Mars?

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Curiosity's landing alone was euphoric for NASA: Its soft touchdown in August, at the end of a "sky crane" tether, heralded a new era of precision landings that was watched by millions around the world, creating a triumphant moment for an often-beleaguered space agency.

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Centimeter by centimeter, Curiosity is hunting for evidence that Gale, a desiccated ding in the planet's surface with a central peak towering 18,000 feet above the crater floor, may have harbored conditions that permitted primitive life to exist early in Mars' history. But that's just one spot on the planet – akin to trying to figure out the biological history of Earth by landing solely in rural Chile (which scientists often use as a stand-in for Mars).

Over the next eight years other missions will help fill in elements of the planet's profile. In December, NASA will send aloft MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission), an orbiter intended to tease out the story of how Mars' atmosphere has changed over its history. The launch follows a Mars-orbiter mission India is planning for November. In 2016, the United States will send a lander, InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport), to probe the Martian interior. NASA will also play a supporting role in ExoMars, a joint project between the European Space Agency and Russia's Roscosmos that aims to launch spacecraft to orbit and land on the red planet in 2016 and 2018.

Finally, in 2020, NASA will attempt to put another Curiosity-size rover on Mars. It is widely expected to begin a campaign to achieve one of the holy grails of space science: eventually return a rock or soil sample from Mars. It's an objective that just a few months ago had been axed from NASA's budget.

"It's huge," says Dr. Hubbard of the recent announcement of the 2020 mission.

The technology honed and science gleaned from these missions, past and future, will also add to the knowledge humans will need if they are ever to achieve one long-sought dream: to walk on Mars and perhaps eventually colonize it. While both political and practical problems make a manned mission to Mars seem remote for now, the idea remains a source of fascination and planning in scientific circles and space agencies around the world.

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Mars is certainly a tough destination to reach. The grimness in the mission control room in 1999 is a reminder of that. Human error, technical glitches, and the challenge of orchestrating a rendezvous between two objects after traveling more than 300 million miles, at speeds of up to 50,000 m.p.h., make landing a craft on Mars or orbiting it very difficult. This is to say nothing of dust storms, wayward winds, and frigid temperatures once a spacecraft lands.

The result is that, in the 52 years since humans have been trying to send spacecraft to Mars, only 36 percent of the missions have achieved their primary objectives. That includes 40 launches by a variety of entities – Russia, the US, Europe, and Japan.

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