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NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory California Institute of Technology
A new Mars rover carrying technology designed to figure out whether the Red Planet could once have supported life is on track to launch later in November.
"This mission advances technologies and science that will move us toward missions to return samples from and eventually send humans to Mars," said Doug McCuistion, director of NASA's Mars exploration program at a news conference Thursday ahead of the launch.
The car-sized Mars rover Curiosity is scheduled to launch on its Mars Science Laboratory mission at 10:25 a.m. ET on Nov. 25, NASA says. It is expected to land at the Gale crater on Mars in August 2012.
Its goal is to determine the habitability of Mars — whether it ever was or still is an environment that could support microbial life such as bacteria.
Ashwin Vasavada, the mission's deputy project scientist, said the Gale crater is an ideal site for learning about Mars's past climate and conditions because layers of materials deposited at different times are all exposed there.
"The entire early history of Mars is here for us."
He called the rover a scientist's "dream machine."
At 900 kilograms and nearly two metres tall, Curiosity is twice as big as previous rovers. Unlike those earlier models, it is capable of drilling into rocks to collect samples from inside them, Vasavada said.
Among the 10 instruments carried by the rover is an alpha particle X-ray spectrometer designed by University of Guelph physics professor Ralf Gellert and built by Richmond, B.C.-based MacDonald, Dettwiller and Associates Ltd. with the support of the Canadian Space Agency.
The machine consists of a detector the size of a pop can on the rover's arm and a block of electronics the size of a trade paperback book in the rover's belly. It's designed to scan rocks and soil to determine what elements are present in the environment in what amounts.
A less advanced version of the instrument was carried aboard the earlier Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, which landed on Mars in 2004.
The newest rover also has some key features intended to pave the way for human exploration, McCuistion said.
Because it is so much larger than previous rovers, it will test NASA's ability to bring larger masses — such as those necessary to carry humans and their supplies — through the atmosphere of Mars and land them on the surface.
While previous rovers have been protected by airbags as they were dropped to the surface, Curiosity is too heavy for that kind of landing. Instead, a "descent stage" will use reverse rockets to slow itself down as Curiosity is lowered from a series of tethers.
McCuistion said the new landing system is far more precise, as is necessary for human exploration.
He added that Curiosity's instruments include a radiation detector that will take detailed measurements of the surface radiation that astronauts on Mars would be exposed to over time.