NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has high expectations for the upcoming landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars and is certain of great science results, a lab engineer says.

Torsten Zorn, a robotics engineer with JPL and a four-year veteran on the Curiosity project team, told Xinhua in an interview that the most interesting part of the venture could be learning more about the geological history of Mars.

Zorn said scientists want to find out how Mars’ once wet surface dried up, how long the process took and what caused the changes. The findings will be important for scientists to determine whether Mars is habitable for humans.

To find life, in any form, Zorn said, is a goal of Curiosity. The rover is equipped with a drill to gather samples underground and send them to a self-contained lab to determine Mars’ geological conditions and changes, and if there are any microorganisms present on the planet. The small lab will also test the soil samples to see if there are signs of life in the history of Mars.

Curiosity will test the Mars soil only with its own equipment after it lands on the planet on Sunday (August 5) but future missions will bring samples back to Earth for more study, Zorn said.

Zorn said many Americans have volunteered for the first one-way trip to Mars, but he said that if scientists can send human to Mars, they can also guarantee a return trip.

Paving the way

Curiosity will help pave the way for future manned Mars missions, Zorn said.

“It will definitely do its part to further help man’s ability to land on another planet,” he said. “We have a couple of different instruments onboard that will increase our knowledge of the environment, the radiation environment, the chemistry of the surface. There are many different ways that are helping should we decide to pursue a human space program to Mars. This is one of the stepping stones towards that goal.” Curiosity will concentrate on a small area of Mars to conduct detailed research, Zorn said, but following traces of water should be the general rule.

Curiosity also will take video images for the first time and send them back to Earth, Zorn said.

Using plutonium decay

The rover also will be the first to use nuclear power thanks to a radioisotope thermoelectric generator that will utilize the heat of plutonium-238’s radioactive decay.

The long-lived power supply will enable Curiosity to operate for at least a full Mars year (687 Earth days, or 1.9 Earth years).

Zorn said nuclear power is not new to spacecraft and was available in the 1960s. The technology is much more advanced now and suitable for use in a long-range rover such the Curiosity. “I am very close to 100 percent sure” of success, he said, adding that the lab has tested Curious under almost all scenarios and has prepared several years for the mission.

Curiosity represents an international effort, Zorn said, because it contains parts from Russia, Spain and Canada.

With a length of 10 feet and weight of 899 kg, the rover is the largest vehicle humans have sent to other planets, Zorn said. The Curiosity program has cost a total of 2.5 billion dollars, including 1.8 billion dollars for spacecraft development and science investigations, NASA said.

Curiosity, launched on Nov. 26, 2011, will travel almost 352 million miles (567 million km) to reach Mars.

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