The lab is a 1-ton rover loaded with instruments to analyze Martian rocks and soil within a vast feature dubbed Gale Crater. Although the rover isn't designed to hunt for life, it will be hunting for organic compounds that would help determine whether the planet had conditions that could have supported life.
In one sense, the world's space agencies have a success rate at the Mars-mission plate that major-league ball players would envy. Since 1960, when the then-Soviet Union launched the first mission to the red planet, which failed, 35 launches by four nations have amassed a .329 average, based on NASA's tabulation of international Mars launches.
But that average masks a wide disparity in success rates among the four.
With the apparent failure of Phobos-Grunt, Russia is 0 for 17 attempts since 1960 at a mix of Mars flybys, orbiters, and landers.
Japan, which launched a Mars orbiter in 1998, is 0 for 1. Europe, with its inaugural Mars Express/Beagle 2 orbiter-lander combo, is 0.5 for 1 at the red planet. Launched in 2003, the duo reached Mars. The orbiter has been a science success, and its mission has been extended to 2014. But the lander was declared lost after repeated attempts to contact it failed following its December 2003 descent to the surface.
NASA, meanwhile, has enjoyed 11 successful Mars missions out of 16 launched since 1964, including flybys, orbiters, and rovers.
It's easy to get used to those successes, but they are far from assured.
Designing craft for interplanetary travel means tailoring its systems to function for years in an environment far different from the conditions craft encounter in Earth orbit, where designers have far more experience, Dr. McNutt says.