With luck, a NASA rover called Curiosity will launch in the next few weeks and have a smooth ride to Mars, arriving in August of next year. Once there, the robot will be lowered to the red planet's surface by a giant cable, as shown in the artist's rendering above, part of a new system for landing large craft on other worlds.
(Related: "Next Mars Rover Landing Site Named—Gale Crater.")
But first, the Curiosity rover has to ward off the "Mars curse."
In the space business, jokes about the curse have sharp edges. In the half-century since humans first tried to send a probe to the red planet, roughly two thirds of the 39 attempted missions to Mars have met a bad end. Some spacecraft plummeted back to Earth, while others fell silent partway through the trip. One Soviet craft exploded just after lifting off; another burned up attempting to land on Mars.
Earlier this month, a Russian spacecraft designed to travel to Mars's moon Phobos got stuck in Earth orbit shortly after launch. So far, engineers have been unable to diagnose the problem.
For the latest NASA attempt, the stakes are high: At a whopping 2,000 pounds (900 kilograms), the Curiosity rover will be the biggest and most complex object yet landed on another planet. And the overall mission has a price tag to match—$2.5 billion for the rover, spacecraft, and other elements.
"Mars may interfere with us," NASA's Peter Theisinger, the rover's program manager, conceded at a prelaunch news briefing November 10. "Any entry, descent, and landing on Mars is a place where you ... bite your nails a little bit. It's not a risk-free environment."
(Also see "Mars Lander Team Prepares for 'Seven Minutes of Terror.'")