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The Mars mystique

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The debacle marked a low point in NASA's decades-old quest to explore Mars. The loss of the lander was the third failure in six years. In the 13 years since, however, the effort has undergone a remarkable turnaround. The agency has overseen the most comprehensive, systematic – and successful – effort to investigate another planet since the dawn of the Space Age. A string of six triumphant orbiters, landers, and rovers has helped unlock mysteries about a planet that has captivated humans since the Babylonians.

Now, as the most sophisticated rover humans have ever sent into the cosmos inches its way along the planet's ruddy surface, mankind may be reaching a hinge moment in the study of Mars. Curiosity's slow journey across Gale Crater marks a shift from tracing the history of water on Mars to focusing on efforts that could help answer a question humans have been asking since Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens drew up the first practical sketches of the planet in the mid-1600s: Did Mars ever host life?

Curiosity's landing alone was euphoric for NASA: Its soft touchdown in August, at the end of a "sky crane" tether, heralded a new era of precision landings that was watched by millions around the world, creating a triumphant moment for an often-beleaguered space agency.

Centimeter by centimeter, Curiosity is hunting for evidence that Gale, a desiccated ding in the planet's surface with a central peak towering 18,000 feet above the crater floor, may have harbored conditions that permitted primitive life to exist early in Mars' history. But that's just one spot on the planet – akin to trying to figure out the biological history of Earth by landing solely in rural Chile (which scientists often use as a stand-in for Mars).

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