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What will NASA's Mars rover do when it gets there? (+video)

If NASA's Mars Curiosity rover lands successfully, it will look for signs of habitability. The rover will also keep an eye on the weather.

By Elizabeth HowellSpace.com / July 26, 2012

Curiosity will carry the most advanced payload of scientific gear ever used on Mars' surface, a payload more than ten times as massive as those of earlier Mars rovers. MSL's assignment: Investigate whether conditions have been favorable for microbial life and for preserving clues in the rocks about possible past life.

Robert Z. Pearlman/SPACE.com

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When NASA's next Mars rover, Curiosity, arrives at the Red Planet next month, it will help pave the way for the humans that might one day follow.

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This 11-minute animation depicts key events of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission, which will launch in late 2011 and land a rover, Curiosity, on Mars in August 2012.

In addition to looking for signs of current and past habitability to extraterrestrial life, the rover, due to land Aug. 6, will learn more about whether Mars could be habitable for humans — particularly in terms of its weather. The continuous record of Martian weather and radiation Curiosity plans to collect will help future forecasters tell humans — should we choose to go — how best to protect themselves in the harsh environment, experts say.

That's why NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate paid to include a radiation detector onboard the car-size Curiosity, the centerpiece of the Mars Science Laboratory mission, which is run by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“When we were designing Curiosity, we were going to use it for our habitability investigations as well,” said Ashwin Vasavada, MSL's deputy project scientist. “But it really is paid for and intended to understand the environment humans will experience on Mars.”

The $2.5 billion rover launched Nov. 26, 2011. It is designed to work for at least two years on Mars.

Curiosity will sample the Martian environment every hour through two main instruments: a meteorology station and a radiation detector. The instruments will run even when the rover is sleeping, during the Martian night, to provide a continual stream of data. [Mars Rover Curiosity's Landing Site: Gale Crater (Infographic)]

The Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD), in fact, began running during Curiosity's eight-month journey to Mars. Radiation from the sun and galactic cosmic rays occur throughout the solar system, meaning that humans would be exposed to elevated radiation from the moment they leave Earth's cradling magnetic field. Understanding how much radiation would bombard the spacecraft is the first step to learning how we can shield humans against it.

When Curiosity begins work on the Red Planet, RAD's telescope detectors will run for 15 minutes every hour, measuring a broad range of high-energy radiation in the atmosphere and on the surface.

It's not fully known just how radiation behaves close to the surface. Although orbiting spacecraft such as the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter can measure it from above, it's harder for those spacecraft on high to see radiation close to the ground. Of most concern to scientists are rays that can splinter off from radiation hitting the Martian atmosphere.

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