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Curiosity's Mars exploration: Is it worth the money? (+video)

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Proponents insist Mars science is vital for the U.S. More visits to our next-door neighbor could answer lingering questions about Earth’s history, reinforce U.S. prestige and get more children interested in science.

It also could bring humanity closer to answering the ultimate question: Are we alone in the universe?

“It’s the search for the meaning of life,” said Alden Munson, a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, a science and technology think tank based in Arlington, Va.

America’s love affair with Mars can be traced to astronomer Percival Lowell, who turned his telescope to the Red Planet in the 1890s and thought he saw an intricate system of canals that must have been built by intelligent beings. He never found them, of course, but Martians became a science fiction mainstay.

Earthlings got their first up-close view of Mars’ rocky surface in 1965, when Mariner 4 flew by and photographed a surface that appeared as dead as the moon’s — lacking water or active geology, two prerequisites for life.

But later missions, from the Mariner 9 orbiter to Spirit and Opportunity, helped establish Mars as a useful comparative laboratory for studying climate and geophysics on Earth. They demonstrated that the planet was once warmer and wetter than it is now. Long ago, it may have been a hospitable cradle for life.

When planetary scientists assembled recently at the behest of the National Academies to set research priorities for the next decade, the search for conditions that would allow life to emerge on Mars topped the list.

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