Let's Talk About: Curiosity set to land on Mars

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NASA's Mars Science Laboratory, carrying the one-ton Curiosity rover, is on track for landing at the foot of a layered mountain inside the planet's Gale Crater early Monday morning.

Curiosity, launched on Nov. 26, 2011, will be on a two-year primary mission to determine the Red Planet's "habitability." It will use its scientific instruments to study whether the Gale Crater landing region had favorable environmental conditions for supporting microbial life and for preserving clues about whether life ever existed.

Gale Crater spans 96 miles in diameter and holds a mountain rising higher from the crater floor than Mount Rainier rises above Seattle.

First, however, the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft must put Curiosity safely onto the ground. Safe landing on Mars is never assured, and this mission will use innovative methods to land the heaviest vehicle in the smallest target area ever attempted on the planet. Advances in landing heavier payloads more precisely are steps toward eventual human missions to Mars.

To find out the planet's habitability, Curiosity will carry the biggest, most advanced suite of scientific instruments ever sent to the Martian surface. The rover will analyze samples scooped from the soil and drilled from rocks. The history of the planet's climate and geology is essentially written in the rocks and soil, and in their formation, structure and chemical composition. The rover's onboard science laboratory has been designed to detect the chemical building blocks of life on Mars, and it will examine what the Martian environment was like in the past.

The car-sized Curiosity is about twice as long and more than five times as heavy as the previous twin rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. 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 also provide heat and electric power to the rover.

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