NASA’s next Mars rover, Curiosity, a car-size Mars Science Laboratory, is set to land at the foot of a layered mountain inside the planet’s Gale crater.
Curiosity is planned to launch later this year and land in August 2012. The crater targeted is about 96 miles (154 kilometers) in diameter and holds a mountain rising from the crater floor, which compared to Mount Rainier that rises above Seattle, is higher. The crater is named after the Australian astronomer Walter F. Gale.
The mission, that will last nearly two Earth years, will see researchers making use of Curiosity’s tools to explore possible life forms in the planet and if the landing region had favorable environmental conditions for supporting microbial life.
"Mars is firmly in our sights," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. "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."
Curiosity is nearly twice as long and more than five times as heavy compared to the previous Mars rover. The vehicle has 10 science instruments which include two for ingesting and examining samples of powdered rock that the rover's robotic arm collects. The power source, a radioisotope, will provide heat and electric power to the rover. A rocket-driven sky crane suspending Curiosity on tethers will lower the rover directly to the planet’s surface.
"Scientists identified Gale as their top choice to pursue the ambitious goals of this new rover mission," said Jim Green, director for the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "The site offers a visually dramatic landscape and also great potential for significant science findings."
Curiosity will work beyond the "follow-the-water" strategy of recent Mars exploration that was followed previously. The new rover's science payload can now classify other elements of life, such as the carbon-based building blocks called organic compounds.
"Gale gives us attractive possibilities for finding organics, but that is still a long shot," said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program at agency headquarters. "What adds to Gale's appeal is that, organics or not, the site holds a diversity of features and layers for investigating changing environmental conditions, some of which could inform a broader understanding of habitability on ancient Mars."
Curiosity and other spacecraft sections are being assembled and undergoing testing. The mission will launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida between November 25 and December 18, NASA’s official website reported.
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