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NASA sets sights on Martian crater: rover Curiosity to begin exploring rocky basin in 2012.

NASA's six-wheeled Mars rover Curiosity now has a destination on the Red Planet: Gale Crater, an ancient, 150-kilometerwide depression with a large mountain in the middle. The car-sized robot will spend at least two years wheeling around the rocky basin, collecting information about Martian history and looking for signs of habitable environments.

NASA announced the landing site for the $2.5 billion mission on July 22. Scheduled to launch later this year for an August 2012 landing, Curiosity and its payload of instruments will wheel around examining rocks, snapping photos and eating dust. There are 17 cameras on board; one on the rover's belly will capture the dramatic descent to the surface. A laser will help Curiosity identify intriguing rocks to study. When it finds one, the rover will approach the rock and drill into it, producing a powder that Curiosity will then ingest and analyze.

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Gale Crater's central mound is a 5-kilometer-tall stack of sediments that scientists can read like chapters in a history book. The rocky pages will reveal Mars' geologic and environmental history, including how much water may have drenched the basin once upon a time. The crater also features canyons and fissures that may once have been habitable.

"Our primary goal is to explore habitable environments," says project scientist John Grotzinger of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "That means we have water present, that means we have a source of energy for microbes to undertake metabolism to live, and that we also have a source of carbon for life as we know it."

Curiosity will study clay deposits near the base of the mountain, then head toward an area rich in sulfur salts. Both form in the presence of water, says geologist Dawn Sumner of the University of California, Davis.

Gale Crater has been on the short list of Mars target sites for at least a decade.

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Title Annotation:Atom & Cosmos
Author:Drake, Nadia
Publication:Science News
Article Type:Brief article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 27, 2011
Words:315
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