By Alex DeMetrick

GREENBELT, Md. (WJZ)—Early next Monday morning, the largest, most advanced rover in NASA’s history will land on Mars. It’s called Curiosity.

Alex DeMetrick reports a critical piece of that machine was built here in Maryland.

It weighs in at one ton, and is the size of an SUV.

And when the rover Curiosity rolls on Mars, its mission is a familiar one.

“We’re looking for evidence that Mars was ever habitable,” said Dr. Melissa Trainer, Goddard Space Flight Center.

And doing the looking is SAM, or Sample Analysis at Mars, a compact chemistry lab built at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt.

It’s job is “to better understand the surface chemistry and the atmosphere chemistry of Mars,” said Chris Johnson, Goddard Space Flight Center.

And to make sure it will work, engineers at Goddard built a Mars chamber with Martian air of carbon dioxide and freezing temperatures.

“We went from 15 C to minus 45,” Johnson said.

Which is relatively balmy. The chamber can reach minus 130 degrees Celsius. That’s 200 degrees below zero.

“We had to fully test all of our instruments to be sure they can survive the Martian environment,” Johnson said.

Curiosity will explore an ancient crater, where different layers of rock and minerals are exposed, drilling into different Martian eras.

What’s collected will then be analyzed by SAM’s instruments.

“So now we’re looking for evidence of organic molecules or carbon based molecules that comprise life as we know it on Earth,” Trainer said.

But first Curiosity must survive a harrowing landing at 1 a.m. Monday.

Too heavy to parachute all the way down, it will be deployed by a rocket-powered space crane. It’s the first such landing ever, and it’s sure to be a nail biter.

“It will be, but I have a lot of trust in the engineers that designed it, and we’re very confident it’s going to go well,” Trainer said.

“There’s a lot of anticipation. I’m sure I’ll be awake. This is something that’s never been done before. This is a challenge, but this is what NASA does,” Johnson said.

If all goes well, Curiosity will be capable of at least two years of exploring.


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