WASHINGTON (WBBM) – The landing of the rover Curiosity early Monday on Mars is being called the science event of the decade, and Chicago-native John Grunsfeld will oversee the operation in the first major undertaking of his new tenure as NASA’s top scientist.

“The Curiosity landing is the hardest NASA robotic mission ever attempted in the history of exploration of Mars or any of our robotic exploration,” said Grunsfeld, Associate Administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “I think this is the science event if not the human event for space of the decade.”

Curiosity is scheduled to touch down on Mars early Monday at 12:31 am CDT. The $2.5 billion rover is designed to search for clues that Mars was or is a habitable planet for microbial life. It’s equipped with instruments to dig, drill and analyze chemical properties of Martian soil and rocks. The car-size rover will also be able to take high-definition photographs.

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“This is risky business,” said Grunsfeld. Only 14 of the 40 spacecraft sent to Mars have survived the trip. NASA’s first landing on the Red Planet happened in 1976 and since then, six of the agency’s spacecraft have successfully landed on the Martian surface.
Curiosity is the most sophisticated yet.

“MSL hold the potential to look for evidence of habitable environments, if they existed on Mars, in the distant past. The Curiosity rover has the potential to discover the building blocks of life on Mars, if life ever existed on Mars,” said Grunsfeld.

“This is the first mission where we’ve sent a chemistry laboratory to the surface of Mars. This is going to start exploration of Mars in a way that we’ve never been able to do before. This is as close as we can get to sending geologists or astro-biologists to the surface,” he said.

Grunsfeld, who took over as NASA science chief in January, said Curiosity will conduct two years of scientific work on Mars and could help finally answer one of the biggest questions of the universe.

“Whether there is life elsewhere is the fundamental question,” he said. “This rover may not tell us the answer but it will give us a big leap in that direction.”

Getting the 1-ton rover on the surface of Mars will not be an easy task. There’ll be a seven-minute period, dubbed the “7-minutes of terror” when the M-S-L spacecraft must decelerate from about 13,000 mph to just 2-mph to allow the rover to land safely on the surface.

Grunsfeld, a former astronaut and veteran of five space shuttle flights and former deputy chief of the Hubble Space Telescope program, would like the Curiosity mission to revive the nation’s excitement in the exploration of space.

“I hope the MSL Curiosity landing will be as memorable and exciting for kids today as the Apollo 11 landing was when I was in summer camp 43-years ago.”

Grunsfeld added, “I think this is the Hubble Space Telescope of Mars exploration. This is the first time we have a real analytical laboratory heading to the surface.”

You can follow the Curiosity mission on Twitter @MarsCuriosity or find more information on the mission’s official website http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/

In addition, the Adler Planetarium in Chicago will be open from 9pm Sunday to 2am Monday, hosting a free event celebrating the Curiosity landing. Experts will be available to discuss the mission and guests will be able to watch NASA’s live feed of the landing.

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