One of the first views from NASA's Curiosity rover shows a massive mountain, estimated to be three miles high, rising from Mars' surface.

Editorial: Mars tantalizes us with the big question

Published: Sunday, Aug. 12, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 6E

"Hello – Is there anybody out there?"

In a nutshell, that's the question posed by "Curiosity" – that 1-ton collection of high-tech gizmos that NASA engineers guided to a spectacular landing on Mars last week.

It's the question humans have asked since we first gazed up into the heavens. Are we alone? In the vastness of space, are there not other life forms?

Mars, the fourth planet of our solar system, the Red Planet, has always inspired a special wonder.

Launched back in November, Curiosity took nearly nine months to fly 352 million miles through space. But it was the last seven minutes of the journey that dazzled the world.

The spacecraft encasing the Mars Science Lab entered the thin Martian atmosphere traveling at a heat-searing 13,000 miles per hour. Many miles above the surface, a supersonic parachute deployed and the spacecraft's heat shield broke away. After slowing the descent, the parachute detached itself and a jet-powered backpack then steered Curiosity to within a few feet of Mars, and a sky crane lowered the rover gently onto its landing spot, a deep crater at the foot of a three-mile high Martian mountain.

If scientists find no signs of life on Mars, the landing itself makes the trip worth it. The men and women sitting at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory just outside Pasadena who had labored five years to accomplish this extraordinary feat exploded in relief and joy, a moment of triumph shared by millions watching across the country and the world.

From the moment it landed, Curiosity has performed like a self-absorbed tourist, sending back dozens of pictures of itself sitting in the midst of a barren, pebble-strewn Martian landscape. But this slide show has a very serious purpose. Scientists on Earth are using the pictures to determine if all systems are working as designed, and so far they have been.

Over the next two years Curiosity will roam across Mars, looking for evidence that the planet contains elements necessary to support life. It seeks to answer the question: "Is anybody out there?" Or was there life on Mars at some point in the past?

In the months and years ahead, the country will debate the future of the space program and whether Curiosity's $2.6 billion price tag can be justified in these tough economic times. But that's a discussion for another day. As those extraordinary pictures from Mars stream to the Earth, we should marvel at what Curiosity is bringing back, and how much more could be out there.

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