One of the most remarkable attributes of humans is our curiosity.
We want to know how our world -- our universe -- works. We want to learn why things happen as they do. We create narratives to explain what we are attempting to understand. We are always stretching our horizon, looking for new places to explore.
Given that, the name of the Rover that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration successfully landed on Mars on Monday is as apt as any -- Curiosity.
Curiosity is about the size of a car, but it cost a lot more than what you have parked in your garage right now. The one-ton rover cost NASA $2.5 billion to build, deliver and now operate on the Martian landscape.
In the past, NASA has used air bags to land equipment on the Red Planet, but the nuclear powered rover was too heavy for that technology. And Mars' thin atmosphere makes a parachute method unworkable. Instead, NASA engineers fashioned a complicated landing system that combined a parachute with a heat shield, rocket and cables. After a few tense minutes at landfall, Curiosity landed intact and ready to go to work.
NASA got a series of grainy photos showing the surface getting closer as Curiosity landed, but on Wednesday got some better shots of Gale Crater where the rover landed. Curiosity sent its mission controllers a self-portrait of the vehicle and a panoramic view of the ancient crater.
"The first impression that you get is how Earth-like this seems looking at that landscape," said chief scientist John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology said in a report by The Associated Press.
Of course, appearances can be -- and in this case, are -- deceiving.
Mars has often been romantically viewed as a world similar to Earth, one peopled by various alien forms -- mostly green -- and it is a setting that has settled into science fiction lore, from Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter series to Orson Wells' "The War of the Worlds" radio broadcast that panicked much of his audience to more recent treatments such as the recently released remake of the film "Total Recall."
In reality, Mars is a dry, frigid desert planet that is slammed pretty hard by radiation.
So, why send $2.5 billion worth of equipment more than 350 million miles to an inhospitable location?
We're looking for answers.
There are indications that Mars, at one time, was warmer and wetter. What happened to change it? There also may still be moisture there. There are no "little green men," but is there enough moisture to support microbial life? Is it enough to make a manned space flight to Mars possible? The presence of enough water on Mars, for instance, would allow astronauts to carry dehydrated food that could be rehydrated there on the long flight where every ounce of the payload counts.
And, as we have learned with space exploration already, we may even stumble on some answers to questions we didn't know to ask.
For the next several weeks, NASA officials will be going through an involved checklist to make sure Curiosity, which launched last Nov. 26, is fully operational. Once that is done -- assuming everything is in proper working order -- the rover will begin a two-year mission that includes examining rocks and soil for the chemical ingredients of life as it slowly travels about four miles toward Mount Sharp, where scientists say there are indications of possible past water.
Just landing this big machine on a less-than-hospitable planet was a success for NASA. Curiosity has already traveled millions of miles, but these next few on the Red Planet's surface promise to be the more exciting journey.
-- The Albany Herald Editorial Board