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Where did life exist on Mars? NASA chooses landing site for Curiosity rover

Curiosity rover, formally known as the Mars Science Laboratory, will land at the foot of an 18,000-foot mountain in Gale crater, NASA announced Friday. The mount is expected to yield unparalleled information on where and when life might have existed on Mars.

By Staff writer / July 22, 2011

This illustration, computer-generated from topography data and photographs, shows the view from the northwest rim of Mars's Gale crater. The oval represents the landing site for Curiosity, the Mars Science Laboratory. The mountain that intrigues geologists is above the landing ellipse.

NASA/JPL/AP

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NASA scientists announced Friday that the next Mars rover will land at the foot of a towering mountain – higher than any in the continental United States – and so dramatically layered that scientists hope to read it like a novel of Martian history, discovering where and when life might have existed on the Red Planet.

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The August 2012 arrival of the roving Mars Science Laboratory, nicknamed Curiosity, represents an important moment in the history of Mars science, team members suggested.

Curiosity will land on the floor of Gale crater, a tiny landing target that would have been off-limits to previous rovers. Moreover, the rover, which is much bigger and burlier than earlier rovers, is designed easily to cover distances and climb slopes that would have sent shivers down the spine of previous rover-mission managers.

The Curiosity team has even dared to dream that, one day, Curiosity might stand atop the mysterious three-mile-high mountain in the middle of Gale crater, giving its Earthbound operators a spectacular view over the Marian landscape. The crater floor is sloped, so the southern side of the mountain rises some 15,000 feet, while the northern approach – which Curiosity will likely take – reaches closer to 18,000 feet.

This mission marks a new and growing confidence among planetary scientists. While the human spaceflight program has an uncertain future, after the ending of the space shuttle program on Thursday with the landing of Atlantis, NASA probes are becoming ever-more adept at exploring previously out-of-reach realms of the solar system, from Pluto to the surface of Saturnian moons to the scorched face of Mercury.

Curiosity, in that way, represents a significant step toward breaking down the technological barriers that have prevented scientists from going where they want in our cosmic neighborhood.

“Geologists like to climb up cliffs, and scientists get to do this for the first time on Mars with this rover,” said Dawn Summer, a geologist at the University of California at Davis, who was a panelist at the announcement Friday. “There is an incredibly rich suite” of things to investigate, she adds, “and it is an incredibly beautiful place.”

Curiosity has been billed as NASA’s first astrobiology mission since Viking arrived on Mars in 1976. Its goal is not to find direct evidence of past life – no fossil-hunting here. Instead, it will look for where and when Mars might once have been habitable – a step further than the Opportunity and Spirit rovers went in seeking signatures of water in 2004.

The rocket holding Curiosity is set to launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida between Nov. 25 and Dec. 18 of this year, and the rover should arrive on Mars in August 2012.

The Gale crater landing site announced Friday was chosen from among 60 original candidate sites, which NASA had whittled down to four finalists by last summer. The clincher? The mountain sitting inside Gale crater is a mystery that may hold the history of water – and potentially life – on Mars.

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