For human travelers, the iconic moment of space exploration occurred a half-century ago, when Neil Armstrong planted the first human boot-print on the moon. But if you don’t mind using robots as our stand-ins, the greatest era is unfolding right now on Mars, where NASA’s Curiosity rover is rolling across the rusty, dusty surface and leaving behind tread marks that spell out the letters “J-P-L” in Morse code. JPL stands for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the NASA center that designed and built Curiosity along with three earlier Mars rovers. Collectively, these machines have racked up 46.4 miles of travel, tremendously expanded our understanding of the Martian environment, and energized the search for life in the universe.
Everywhere the rovers have gone, they have discovered unexpected complexity. They have observed the dried-out remains of streams, rivers, lakes, and catastrophic flows that testify to a time, more than 3.5 billion years ago, when Mars was abuzz with volcanic activity and luxuriously bathed in liquid water. They have found puzzling atmospheric changes that hint at some unknown chemical processes still unfolding today. And they see evidence that, if you scratch below the barren-looking Martian surface, there is a lively (maybe even living?) planet waiting to be discovered.
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