"Well, just when you thought the whole space program was going down in a blaze of glorious apathy, we're given this little tidbit from NASA, and I hope you're paying attention:
Let's stop and notice again what was just said. First, there's this:
"Curiosity -- NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mobile robot -- will investigate the red planet's past or present ability to sustain microbial life and will examine ideal soil and rock sample targets for collection and analysis."
Then, there's this:
"NASA's new Mars probe, a $2.5 billion, nuclear-powered rover the size of a small car, is at the Florida launch site being prepared for its nine-month journey to the red planet, with one key issue still unresolved -- where to land."
So what do we have? We have three things, and some interesting implications implied by them:
1) The probe is nuclear-powered, meaning that it is deliberately intended to be a long term mission, beyond the 5-7 years of life that our last Mars probe had. This in itself is significant, for it means NASA is indeed committed - albeit quietly - to a prolonged study and search for evidence of life on Mars, whether past or present;
2) NASA says it is still debating where to land the $2.5 billion dollar robotic probe. Uh huh... this is one that in all honesty didn't make sense to me. While I can readily believe scientists and engineers debating where to attempt to land, what I have difficulty believing is that this debate continues this late in the game.
This raises some area for speculation, and I emphasize, that it is wild speculation and a slim, very slim, possibility, but it at least bears mentioning. Mars has, as most people who have followed the history of its robotic exploration, more than its fair share of dubious "accidents", the most famous, or infamous, being the Soviet Phobos II probe. The question is, interference from whom?
3) Note what is really the purpose of the mission: to find whether Mars had, has, or has the ability to sustain, microbial life. I rather suspect NASA knows the answer to that already. The fact that the probe is nuclear powered, that its camera is on a seven foot extendable "mast" indicates to me the possibility that NASA is looking for more than just experiments with confirming life... that it may be looking for, or at, something else, and that with its nuclear power, it may be sent on long journeys to "see what we can see."
Now, let's go a bit further, for it appears that the selection is on Gale as the front-runner for the landing:
Look carefully at the picture...and we'll talk on the flip side...