Image credit: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
As most of you are probably aware, we're back on Mars. Last weekend, NASA's Curiosity rover landed on the planet. It has now sent back its first panorama of the landing zone, of which this might be the most interesting 1600 pixel wide chunk:
Image credit: Cropped from this NASA Image of the Day by Cujo359
Click on the picture to see it full size. Go to the image credit link to see the full panorama.
What is the rover there to do? Here's a mission statement from a NASA "fact sheet" about the rover:
Curiosity will carry the most advanced payload of scientific gear ever used on Mars’ surface, a payload more than 10 times as massive as those of earlier Mars rovers. Its assignment: Investigate whether conditions have been favorable for microbial life and for preserving clues in the rocks about possible past life.
Mars Science Laboratory (PDF, pg. 1)
Once again, NASA has managed to do something that few others have managed at all - landing on the surface of another planet to do scientific work. It will look for signs of past life on the planet, and start answering the question of whether it might ever support life again.
How much did all this cost? From a progress report near the start of the program comes this quote:
In early June 2007, the Mars Science Laboratory project completed its project-wide Critical Design Review (CDR), which marks the completion of the project's design phase and transition into the build up of flight hardware. A key component of the CDR process was a technical risk, programmatic, and cost review, from which multiple independent cost assessments predicted that this technically challenging $1.7B planetary science rover mission's current content would cause it to exceed its budgeted development costs to launch by approximately $75M.
Mars Science Laboratory Project Changes Respond to Cost Increases, Keep Mars Program On Track
That $1.7 billion is about a week's operations in Afghanistan, pro-rated of course. I'd much rather spend that kind of money exploring the universe than blowing up someone else's country, but I guess that's just me.