WASHINGTON – It's official! NASA's next Mars rover has a landing site and it's a giant crater called Gale.
NASA's $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory mission is slated to launch in late November, and will drop a car-size rover named Curiosity at the Gale crater.
Gale crater is about 96 miles (154 kilometers) wide and has a mountain at its center that rises higher, from the crater floor up, than Mount Rainer near Seattle. The U.S. states of Connecticut and Rhode Island could fit inside the crater, NASA officials said. [Best (And Worst) Mars Landings in History]
"Mars is firmly in our sights," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement. "Curiosity not only will return a wealth of important science data, but it will serve as a precursor mission for human exploration to the Red Planet."
Gale crater is also thought to harbor clues of ancient water activity on the Martian planet, and one of Curiosity's primary tasks will be to root around for evidence that Mars is, or was, capable of supporting microbial life.
The agency revealed the landing site today 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.
This article was reprinted with permission from SPACE.com.
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