Meet Mars' Gale crater
In the end, the program scientists found the broadest benefits in Gale crater's diverse environmental settings.
"The Gale site represents an incredibly rich suite of scientific investigations that we can do," said Dawn Sumner, a geologist at the University of California, Davis.
At the base of the mountain, there are signatures of clays and sulfate salts, which are both known to form in water, and are both key classes of minerals that will reveal clues about the environment on Mars, Sumner said.
By moving toward Gale's mountain, the layering will help scientists understand how the Martian environment changed through time. From these observations, project scientists are hoping to glean information about Mars' potential habitability.
The Curiosity rover will expand on previous Mars exploration with its sophisticated onboard instruments. The rover's science payload has the potential to identify organic carbon and other ingredients and compounds that make up the building blocks of biology.
Scientists are hoping that Curiosity will find minerals in the clay and sulfate-rich layers near the base of Gale crater's mountain.
"Gale gives us attractive possibilities for finding organics, but that is still a long shot," said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters. "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."
And while Curiosity's mission does not include life detection, the rover is expected to unearth clues about the habitability of the environments on the Red Planet, said John Grotzinger, MSL project scientist at JPL.
"This is a very, very difficult challenge that we have for us," Grotzinger said. "We hope to be able to be able to look for organic carbon. What we can promise and deliver with MSL is an understanding of the environmental history of Mars."
NASA revealed the landing site today (July 22) in a briefing hosted by the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. The announcement coincides with the museum's celebration of Mars Day honoring the 35th anniversary of NASA's Viking 1 Mars landing on July 20, 1976.
NASA's Curiosity rover will be the largest rover ever sent to Mars. After launching from Florida later this year, the rover will spend several months cruising toward Mars for a planned August 2012 landing.
The spacecraft weighs a ton and is roughly comparable in size to a Mini Cooper car. The sophisticated rover is designed to study aspects of the Martian surface in greater detail than ever before, boasting a suite of 10 different science instruments.
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