Curiosity, scheduled to land on the Red Planet in August, will try to determine if conditions were ever favorable to support microbial life.
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NASA is readying the launch at the end of the month of its largest and most advanced Mars robotic explorer, which will spend nearly two years examining a key crater on the Red Planet.
Curiosity, which the agency is calling its "most advanced mobile robotic laboratory," is scheduled for launch Nov. 25 from Florida's Space Coast, and is expected to reach Mars next August to perform NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission.
The purpose of the mission--which will leverage understanding of the planet researchers already have gleaned from previous rover missions--will be to examine Mars' Gale Crater. Curiosity will investigate if environmental conditions there have ever been favorable to develop microbial life, according to NASA.
"Gale gives us a superb opportunity to test multiple potentially habitable environments and the context to understand a very long record of early environmental evolution of the planet," said John Grotzinger, project scientist for MSL at the California Institute of Technology, in a press statement. "The portion of the crater where Curiosity will land has an alluvial fan likely formed by water-carried sediments. Layers at the base of the mountain contain clays and sulfates, both known to form in water."
The rover will use a mast that extends seven feet above the ground to study targets from a distance with laser-firing instruments and cameras. Instruments inside Curiosity have the capability to analyze soil and rock samples to determine their composition. The rover will collect these samples with its arm's powdering drill and scoop, according to NASA.
The mission also could prepare Mars for its first human visitors, as Curiosity also will use instruments to determine how the planet's weather and natural radiation will affect future human missions to the Red Planet, the space agency said.
In addition to being the most advanced of NASA's Mars rovers, Curiosity also is by far the largest. The rover weighs a ton and is twice as long and five times as heavy as its predecessors, Spirit and Opportunity.
The bulkiness of its scientific and technological payload have something to do its weight. The rover will carry 10 science instruments that weigh 15 times as much as any on a previous rover mission, according to NASA.
The weight of the rover poses a challenge for the mission, NASA said. Other rovers used an air bag to cushion touchdown on the planet, but Curiosity's weight prevents that type of landing. Instead, a rocket-powered descent will lower the rover on a tether, a landing that requires more precision and is more risky, according to the space agency.