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NOVA: Ultimate Mars Challenge

Airs Sunday, December 15, 2013 at 3 p.m. on KPBS TV

Above: With NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) spacecraft sealed inside its payload fairing, the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket rides smoke and flames as it rises from the launch pad at Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 10:02 a.m. EST Nov. 26. MSL's components include a car-sized rover, Curiosity, which has 10 science instruments designed to search for signs of life, including methane, and help determine if the gas is from a biological or geological source.

Why go back to Mars? Far from dead, Mars now holds untold potential. Nearly half a century of Mars exploration has yielded tantalizing clues that Mars may once have harbored life – and may harbor it still. But when a revolutionary rover named Curiosity touches down inside the Gale Crater in August 5, 2012, it could be NASA’s last chance to set wheels down on Mars until the end of the decade.

Courtesy of NASA/Charisse Nahser

In the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the robotic arm of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover, Curiosity, has been stowed against the body of the spacecraft.

Courtesy of NASA/Kim Shiflett

Technicians use an overhead crane to separate the two components of the aeroshell, an element of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), after testing. The aeroshell consists of the spacecraft's heat shield and the backshell, which carries the parachute and several components used during later stages of entry, descent and landing.

“Sending Curiosity to Mars is a tremendous technological and engineering feat that could help us answer some of the most basic questions humankind has about the origins of life and our place within the universe,” said Paula S. Apsell, Senior Executive Producer of NOVA. “Our NOVA viewers will want to be there every step of the way for this epic and painstaking journey and the discoveries that may come from it.”

Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech

This computer-generated view depicts part of Mars at the boundary between darkness and daylight, with an area including Gale Crater beginning to catch morning light.

Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/ESA/UA

This oblique view of the lower mound in Gale crater shows layers of rock that preserve a record of environments on Mars. Here, orbiting instruments have detected signatures of both clay minerals and sulfate salts, with more clay minerals apparent in the foreground of this image and fewer in higher layers. This change in mineralogy may reflect a change in the ancient environment in Gale Crater.

Profile: Vandi Verma

A daredevil engineer born in India now drives NASA's Mars rovers.

A Life-Changing Landing on Mars

Planetary scientist Ashwin Vasavada reflects on life as a member of the Mars Science Laboratory team.

Quick Facts

Earth/Mars Comparison

A marvel of technology, it is the most sophisticated robot ever to rove the surface of Mars. But the stakes are high and the risks are extraordinary. Half of all missions to Mars end in failure. Will this be one of them? If it succeeds, will it answer some of our biggest questions and usher in a new golden age of exploration?

NOVA goes behind the scenes on NASA’s quest to solve the riddles of the red planet in “Ultimate Mars Challenge,” which premiered in November 2012.

The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) is the most complex and scientifically powerful robotic expedition ever sent to another world. Scientists say that Curiosity is as close as we can get to sending a field geologist to Mars.

Decoding the history of the red planet could unlock secrets about our own planet. The daring operation could bring us one step closer to solving the fundamental mysteries driving planetary science:

How did life arise on Earth? Is life on Earth a unique accident or did life arise elsewhere in our solar system — and beyond? If we do find life off Earth, will it resemble us — or be utterly different in its bio- chemistry?

Curiosity follows in the footsteps of previous Mars missions. It will join the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity — still roving the surface of the red planet eight years after its arrival. Curiosity will be tracked by three Mars orbiters that will relay the rover’s travels and discoveries to the mission team on Earth.

And getting Curiosity safely to the surface requires a landing system never before attempted on Mars with a zero margin for error. After rocketing across 350 million miles of space, Curiosity will hit Mars atmosphere at about 13,000 miles per hour.

The largest parachute ever used on a space mission will slow the rover’s descent — until a “sky crane” takes over and lowers Curiosity to the planet’s surface. This daring new system requires a dangerous dance of technology and perfect timing. “A million things need to go exactly right,” says one of its designers. Will it work on Mars?

Weighing in at nearly a ton, this nuclear-powered “rover on steroids” carries twice the scientific payload as its two predecessors, Spirit and Opportunity. This model is fully loaded with high definition (HD) cameras, a rock-zapping laser spectrometer and a Radiation Assessment Detector that will provide the first-ever measurements of surface radiation on Mars.

The rover also carries two extraordinary miniaturized laboratories that can analyze samples of rocks and soil for signs that Mars might once have been suitable for life. Expectations and tensions run high. Planning this daring operation and pulling it off require nearly a decade of effort by a cast of thousands of scientists and engineers. Careers and billions of dollars are on the line.

NOVA obtains footage and interviews with the massive team of scientists and engineers responsible for Curiosity’s inception and with those running the on-the-ground experiments to prepare the rover for dealing with harsh Martian conditions and equipment emergencies.

Camera crews go behind the scenes with the team at NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) — interviewing those who have spent years directing the Curiosity project, including MSL Project Chief Engineer Rob Manning, MSL Deputy Scientist Ashwin Vasavada, MSL Mission Manager Michael Watkins and MSL Chief Scientist John Grotzinger.

What remains to be seen is whether the monumental undertaking pays off and NASA’s MSL bold mission proves to be a trailblazing scientific strategy that forges new frontiers.

“Ultimate Mars Challenge” will take NOVA viewers on the full journey in an in-depth film that chronicles the operations from the planning stages and Curiosity’s engineering, construction, testing and move to the Kennedy Space Center — through the exhilarating moments of Curiosity’s launch and landing — and the spectacular discoveries to come.

Past episodes of NOVA are available for online viewing. NOVA is on Facebook, and you can follow @novapbs on Twitter.

Video

Preview: NOVA: Ultimate Mars Challenge

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Watch Ultimate Mars Challenge - Preview on PBS. See more from NOVA.

Above: In August, a rover named Curiosity touched down inside Mars’ Gale Crater, carrying 10 new instruments that will advance the quest for signs that Mars might once have been suitable for life. But Curiosity’s mission is risky. After parachuting through the Martian atmosphere at twice the speed of sound, Curiosity was gently lowered to the planet’s surface by a “sky crane.” This first-of-its-kind system has been tested on Earth, but there was no guarantee it would work on Mars. With inside access to the massive team of scientists and engineers responsible for Curiosity’s on-the-ground experiments, NOVA was there for the exhilarating moments after Curiosity’s landing — and is there for the spectacular discoveries to come.

Video

Getting to Mars: Curiosity's Seven Minutes of Terror

Above: Team members at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory share the challenges of the Curiosity Mars rover's final minutes to landing on the surface of Mars.

Video

NOVA: How to Land a Mars Rover

Above: Can't get enough of Curiosity? Neither can we. In this video, get a sneak peek at "Ultimate Mars Challenge," NOVA's upcoming look inside the Curiosity mission, as MSL Chief Engineer Rob Manning describes the feats of engineering required to land the Mars rover safely.