July 22, 2011

Mars Rover To Land At Gale Crater

NASA announced on Friday that the location for its Mars rover would be a layered mountain inside the planet's Gale crater.

The Curiosity rover is scheduled to launch late in 2011 and land on the red planet in August 2012. 

The new target is 96 miles in diameter and holds a mountain that rises higher than Mount Rainier rises above Seattle, according to NASA.

The space agency said Gale crater is about the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined.

"Mars is firmly in our sights," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement.  "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."

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," Jim Green, director for the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said in a press release. "The site offers a visually dramatic landscape and also great potential for significant science findings."

NASA said that over 100 scientists began to consider about 30 potential landing sites in 2006.  The number of potential landing sites dwindled to four in 2008. 

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.

According to NASA, Curiosity is about twice as long and over five times as heavy than any previous Mars rover.  It has 10 science instruments, including two for ingesting and analyzing samples of powdered rock that the rover's robotic arm collects.

The portion of the crater Curiosity will land on has an alluvial fan, which NASA said likely formed by water-carried sediments.  The layers at the base of the mountain contain clays and sulfates.

"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," John Grotzinger, the mission's project scientist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California, said in a press release.

"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."

NASA said the rover will use a "follow-the-water" strategy of recent Mars exploration.  The rover's science payload is able to identify other ingredients of life, like carbon-based building blocks of biology called organic compounds.

"Gale gives us attractive possibilities for finding organics, but that is still a long shot," Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program at agency headquarters said in a statement.

"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."


Image 1: This computer-generated view based on multiple orbital observations shows Mars' Gale crater as if seen from an aircraft northwest of the crater. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/UA

Image 2: NASA has selected Gale crater as the landing site for the Mars Science Laboratory mission. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU


On the Net: