The next Mars rover, named Curiosity, will explore the Gale Crater when it touches down on the red planet next year.
The Gale Crater is thought by scientists to be the best possible place on Mars to have evidence of life.
The 96-mile wide crater is about the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. Located just south of the Martian equator, it’s home to a number of geological features that researchers believe were caused by liquid water on the surface. There’s also a Grand Canyon size crater bisecting the crater that scientists believe was made by running water.
In the middle of Gale Crater is a mountain taller than Mount Ranier that will contain millenia of Martian natural history within its sediments. Curiosity, the centerpiece of NASA’s $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), is equipped a mechanical arm for scooping up soil samples, 17 cameras and ten other instruments that can sniff out other clues about what happened to the water on Mars, an investigation that will help them understand whether Mars once supported life.
“The thing about this mountain is it’s not a tall spire,” John P. Grotzinger, the project scientist, said at a news conference at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington. “It’s a broad, low, moundlike shape. What it means is we can drive up it with a rover. So this might be the tallest mountain anywhere in the solar system that we could actually climb with a rover.”
Scientists initially identified 100 possible landing sites, which were narrowed down to four finalists. All of the four were intriguing, Dr. Grotzinger said, and getting the scientists to agree on one was like getting a group of people to decide on one flavor of ice cream.
“In the end, we picked the one that felt best,” he said.
Scheduled to launch after Thanksgiving, the Mars Science Laboratory — less formally known as Curiosity — is to arrive on Mars the following August, landing on the flat portion of the crater. The area is covered by sediments that were probably washed there by flowing water long ago.