NASA'S Next Mars Rover To Land At Gale Crater

WASHINGTON -- NASA's next Mars rover will land at the foot of a
layered mountain inside the planet's Gale crater.

The car-sized Mars Science Laboratory, or Curiosity, is scheduled to
launch late this year and land in August 2012. The target crater
spans 96 miles (154 kilometers) in diameter and holds a mountain
rising higher from the crater floor than Mount Rainier rises above
Seattle. Gale is about the combined area of Connecticut and Rhode
Island. Layering in the mound suggests it is the surviving remnant of
an extensive sequence of deposits. The crater is named for Australian
astronomer Walter F. Gale.

"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."

During a prime mission lasting one Martian year -- nearly two Earth
years -- researchers will use the rover's tools to study whether the
landing region had favorable environmental conditions for supporting
microbial life and for preserving clues about whether life ever existed.

"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."

In 2006, more than 100 scientists began to consider about 30 potential
landing sites during worldwide workshops. Four candidates were
selected in 2008.

An abundance of targeted images enabled thorough analysis of the
safety concerns and scientific attractions of each site. A team of
senior NASA science officials then conducted a detailed review and
unanimously agreed to move forward with the MSL Science Team's
recommendation. The team is comprised of a host of principal and
co-investigators on the project.

Curiosity is about twice as long and more than five times as heavy as
any previous Mars rover. Its 10 science instruments include two for
ingesting and analyzing samples of powdered rock that the rover's
robotic arm collects. A radioisotope power source will provide heat
and electric power to the rover. A rocket-powered sky crane
suspending Curiosity on tethers will lower the rover directly to the
Martian surface.

The portion of the crater where Curiosity will land has an alluvial
fan likely formed by water-carried sediments. The layers at the base
of the mountain contain clays and sulfates, both known to form in water.

"One fascination with Gale is that it's a huge crater sitting in a
very low-elevation position on Mars, and we all know that water runs
downhill," said John Grotzinger, the mission's project scientist at
the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif. "In terms
of the total vertical profile exposed and the low elevation, Gale
offers attractions similar to Mars' famous Valles Marineris, the
largest canyon in the solar system."

Curiosity will go beyond the "follow-the-water" strategy of recent
Mars exploration. The rover's science payload can identify other
ingredients of life, such as the carbon-based building blocks of
biology called organic compounds. Long-term preservation of organic
compounds requires special conditions. Certain minerals, including
some Curiosity may find in the clay and sulfate-rich layers near the
bottom of Gale's mountain, are good at latching onto organic
compounds and protecting them from oxidation.

"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."

The rover and other spacecraft components are being assembled and
undergoing final testing. The mission is targeted to launch from Cape
Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida between Nov. 25 and Dec. 18.
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena manages the mission for
the agency's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

To view the landing site and for more information about the mission, visit:



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