There’s a lot riding on the Mars Science Lab

If Curiosity survives its harrowing descent early next month in one functional piece, it will bring an alien world into focus like no other probe has done before.

HouChron – Five times the size of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers already on Mars, Curiosity is packed with scientific equipment: HD-resolution cameras that can also capture video; a laser than can ignite a spark on rocks 20 feet away to determine what they’re made of; and other high-tech tools including an X-ray diffraction setup, a mass spectrometer, and a gas chromatograph.

For me the most exciting instrument is the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHL). Between the lens and viewing options, the MAHL will be able to magnify samples to near microscopic resolution, roughly 5 to 50 times if my math is right and depending on how the technology actually performs. That’s nowhere near enough to image the average individual bacteria, but clumps of them and by-products from extant or ancient metabolic processes, could be visible at that resolution.

I’ll go out on a limb and predict Curiousity will find tantalizing hints of relatively recent life on Mars. I say that because 1) Mars and earth have exchanged material for eons, 2) at one time Mars had large oceans that would have been quite habitable by the hardy denizens of our own Archeon Eon , and 3) some of that water is preserved as ice and probably as interstatial liquid today. To find life in the solar system, follow the water.