When Curiosity touched down on Mars in August, most assumed the SUV-sized rover would live out the rest of her days alone, dutifully traversing the planet's vast, unexplored deserts and beaming back data. But as soon as the six-wheeled space lab began sending back images of the Red Planet, capturing the imaginations of millions, "the world was hooked," says Ian O'Neill at Discovery News. America's enduring fondness for Curiosity is raising a new question: Will Curiosity ever find her way home?
It could happen, says Doug McCuistion, Director of NASA's Mars Exploration program, speaking over a satellite link over the weekend:
It is my hope that humans will be sent to Mars in the 2030s, or 2040s, and they will be able to walk up to the Curiosity and bring it back, as I am sure there is a museum out there that would love to have it.
That is, of course, if the rover is still intact and operational. While the current mission plans for the rover to run for two years, her plutonium generators could, in theory, work for up to 20 years. Unfortunately, Curiosity's equipment will likely succumb to wear and tear in the harsh Martian environment long before astronauts ever gets there.
And that's the not the only factor. "A meteorite strike — the Red Planet is scarred with thousands of such impacts — is another possible threat to the rover," says BBC News. In fact, meteorites slam into Mars so often that when humans get there, they'll have to watch out, too. And, says retired astronaut Bonnie Dunbar, a veteran of five space shuttle flights: "It is not a question of if [humans will ever reach Mars], but when and who."