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NASA's Mars rover makes daring touchdown on Red Planet (+video)

An ambitious maneuver involving an enormous supersonic parachute and a rocket-powered sky crane safely delivered the one-ton, $2.5 billion dollar robot to the surface of Mars.

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A mysterious 3-mile-high (5 kilometer) mountain called Mount Sharp rises from Gale's center. Mount Sharp's many layers preserve a record of Mars' environmental conditions going back perhaps 1 billion years or more, scientists say. Curiosity will read these layers like a book to gain insights about how the Red Planet has changed over time.

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Mars-orbiting spacecraft have spotted signs of clays and sulfates — materials known to form in the presence of water — in Mount Sharp's lower reaches. Since all life on Earth is intimately tied to water, Curiosity will doubtless spend a lot of time poking around the mound's base.

But the MSL team also wants the rover to climb high enough to reach the mountain's drier layers, so it can help investigate why Mars transitioned from a relatively warm and wet planet to the frigid and dry world we know today.

"Something happened on Mars, and it went dry, and that's what we have today," MSL chief scientist John Grotzinger, of Caltech in Pasadena, told SPACE.com. "The question is, what was that event? What was that trigger? What happened environmentally? My hope is that we'll get some insight into this Great Desiccation Event." [7 Biggest Mysteries of Mars]

To cross the wet-dry threshold, Curiosity will likely have to climb about 2,300 feet (700 meters) up Mount Sharp. But that shouldn't be too difficult, as the mountain has relatively gentle slopes, like the huge volcanoes of Hawaii, Grotzinger said.

In fact, it's possible the rover could clamber all the way to Mount Sharp's top, given enough time, officials have said. But this mountaineering feat isn't high on the MSL team's list of priorities right now.

Taking it slow

Curiosity's not quite ready to go roving yet. The robot's handlers must first perform a series of checkouts to make sure the rover and its instruments are in good working condition on the Martian surface.

It will likely be two to four weeks before Curiosity begins "contact science" operations, said MSL project manager Pete Theisinger of JPL. Such work involves examining rocks and soil with the rover's Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer and its Mars Hand Lens Imager, which functions like a high-powered magnifying glass.

It will probably be one to two months before Curiosity drops the first soil samples into its internal analytical instruments, Theisinger added. And the rover likely won't be ready to start the drive toward Mount Sharp for two or three months, Grotzinger said.

"On Sunday night, at 10:32, OK, we will have a priceless, priceless asset that we have placed on the surface of another planet that could last a long time if we operate it correctly," Theisinger told reporters Thursday (Aug. 2). "And so we will be cautious as hell about what we do with it."

Curiosity's prime mission is slated to last one Martian year, or roughly two Earth years. But the rover's plutonium power source could keep it going for a decade or more, provided key parts don't break down.

Such longevity wouldn't be unprecedented for a NASA Mars rover. The twin robots Spirit and Opportunity, after all, were supposed to explore the Red Planet for three months when they touched down in January 2004. Spirit stopped communicating with Earth in March 2010, and Opportunity is still going strong.

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