NASA is preparing to launch a more advanced rover to delve even deeper into the history of Mars, just as its current rover is hitting its stride.
After a nearly three-year journey, NASA's Mars rover "Opportunity" has reached its destination at a edge of a new crater as it searches for more signs of water.
The golf cart-sized rover relayed its arrival at a location named Spirit Point on the planet's Endeavor crater on Aug. 9. It now begins the task of sampling rocks for clues as to how water flowed there in the past.
"We're soon going to get the opportunity to sample a rock type the rovers haven't seen yet," said Matthew Golombek, Mars Exploration Rover science team member, at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. "Clay minerals form in wet conditions so we may learn about a potentially habitable environment that appears to have been very different from those responsible for the rocks comprising the plains."
Scientists are hoping to see much older rocks and terrains than those examined by Opportunity during its first seven years on Mars, especially after researchers identified clay minerals that may have formed in an early warmer and wetter period.
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NASA chose to name the destination Spirit Point to commemorate its other rover which stopped communicating in March 2010. Spirit's mission officially concluded in May.
The milestone comes as NASA begins ramping up its next rover mission, with launch slated for next quarter. Dubbed Curiosity, the next rover will be a mobile science lab, allowing researchers to peer deeper into the history of Mars and understand if life could have ever existed on the planet.
"Opportunity's findings and data from the upcoming Mars Science Laboratory will play a key role in making possible future human missions to Mars and other places where humans have not yet been," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.
The $2.5 billion dollar rover is more advanced than the Pathfinder, Spirit and Opportunity that roamed the red-planet in past years.
While previous rovers have identified that water has indeed flowed on Mars, Curiosity will look for clues of organic compounds necessary for life.
The new rover will house a fully-fledged science laboratory that can perform real-time tests on the planet, making it the most sophisticated unmanned spacecraft ever built . It is about twice as long and more than five times as heavy as any previous Mars rover.
"Curiosity not only will return a wealth of important science data, but it will serve as a precursor mission for human exploration to the Red Planet," Bolden said.
The five-ton mobile laboratory is slated to blast off onboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket between Nov 25 and Dec.18, embarking on a nearly 9 month journey.
It's expected to arrive on Mars next summer.