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NASA's Curiosity Mars rover to 'lay the foundation' for search for life [Video]

The size of a small car, NASA's one-ton Curiosity Mars rover contains twice the number of scientific instruments as its predecessors, plus a drill that will allow it to bore into the Red Planet's rocks. 

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A long cruise to Mars, and a novel descent

Friday's launch will kick off an 8 1/2-month cruise to Mars, with the MSL spacecraft arriving at the Red Planet in August 2012.

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All planetary landings make mission scientists and managers sweat a little bit, but Curiosity's will likely be more nerve-wracking than most. A rocket-powered sky crane will lower the huge rover to the Martian surface on cables — a method that has never been tried before.

The sky crane performed well in full-up computer simulations, so it should work on the Red Planet, officials said.

"Entry, descent and landing is always an exciting time and a challenging time," said MSL project manager Pete Theisinger of JPL. "We're confident in our ability to do it successfully at the planet, but it is clearly not risk-free."

Checking out Gale Crater

Curiosity will touch down at Gale Crater, a 100-mile-wide (150 kilometers) hole in the ground with a mysterious 3-mile-high (5 km) mountain rising from its center. The rover will poke around Gale, scrutinizing and sampling the dirt and rocks it encounters.

Curiosity's mission is designed to last for about two Earth years, but it wouldn't be a shock if the rover kept chugging along for significantly longer, officials said. Spirit and Opportunity, after all, far outlasted their planned three-month mission lifetimes. NASA just declared Spirit dead this year, and Opportunity is still cruising around Mars, checking out a huge crater called Endeavour.

"We do test all the mechanism equipment for three times its normal life," Theisinger said. If all goes well, he added, "we should be good for quite an extended period of time."

And Curiosity is powered by radioisotope thermoelectric generators — which produce electricity from the radioactive decay of plutonium — rather than solar cells. The rover should thus be able to handle the harsh Martian winters well, Theisinger said.

So NASA officials expect Friday's launch to mark the start of something big.

"We'll excite the nation, we'll inspire the nation. We're going to show incredible new vistas, great new discoveries," McCuistion said. "The launch is just the beginning."

You can follow senior writer Mike Wall on Twitter@michaeldwall. Follow for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.


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