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NASA announces next Mars rover's landing site

By Veronica Foreman, CNN
  • The rover, Curiosity, will land at the base of a mountain more than 16,000 feet tall
  • It will be the most advanced rover yet, performing a detailed analysis of the Martian surface
  • Scientists: This mission will open the door for bringing samples to Earth and manned missions
  • Curiosity will launch at the end of this year and land on Mars in August 2012

Washington (CNN) -- Could there have been life on Mars? That's the mission NASA is setting out to answer with Curiosity, the next-generation Mars rover whose landing site was announced Friday at the National Air and Space Museum's annual Mars Day.

Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program, told reporters the mission is bound for the base of a layered mountain in Gale Crater that is 5 kilometers tall, calling it a "worthy challenge" for the new rover. "The site holds a diversity of features," he said, "some of which could inform a broader understanding of the habitability on ancient Mars."

The crater is 96 miles in diameter, and the mountain inside it is taller than Mount Whitney in California. The highly diverse area offers a wide range of potential samples and may offer important insights into the environmental history of Mars. Project scientist John Grotzinger says this is the "tallest mountain in the solar system we could climb with a rover."

Choosing such a diverse landing site was not easy, however. Scientists worldwide have been analyzing potential locations since 2006. The advanced Curiosity technologies made the decision even harder, once narrowed down to a final four possibilities. A lack of "engineering [capabilities] would not kick one or more of them out," Grotzinger said, which has never happened before.

Curiosity is two times longer and five times heavier than any other Mars rover and the most advanced yet. In the end, he said, it was a question of scientific intuition: "We picked the one that felt right."

While this is not a life-detection mission, the scientists say their findings could indicate whether life existed on Mars. In search of organic carbon, among other things, Curiosity will collect and analyze samples as it climbs up the side of the mountain and relay that information home.

Analyzing the Martian surface will be much like reading a book, said Grotzinger: one layer, or page, at a time. "Gale Crater is going to be a great novel," he said, "an amazing precedent is being set right now."

Michael Watkins, a mission manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said this will be a "quantum leap" forward in our understanding of the Red Planet and a leap forward in our exploration capabilities, too. Curiosity paves the way for sample collection missions, in which one rover will collect and store a cache of Martian surface samples for a second mission to pick up and return to Earth later on. While Curiosity has the most complex analysis capabilities a rover has ever had, "they're nothing like we could do Earth," he said.

Geologist John Grant says this could "ultimately open the door to human exploration" on Mars as well.

When it launches, Curiosity will be the final product of approximately 300 team members, according to Grotzinger, who says this will be a mission of "true scientific exploration," allowing scientists to set goals for analysis and experimentation as the rover climbs the mountain, giving them a great deal of flexibility.

Set to launch at the end of this year, the mission still has work to do, as the rover moves to final assembly and testing at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. "When it comes to Mars, science never sleeps," said Dwayne Brown, a NASA public affairs officer.

Curiosity is scheduled to land in Gale Crater in August of 2012.