July 26 - NASA scientists look toward a new era of research in latest Mars mission, days before the Mars rover is set to land on the red planet. Sarah Sheffer reports.
A robotic geologist, of sorts - NASA's Mars Science Laboratory, a wheeled rover named Curiosity, will soon head to our red neighbour to dig through its rocky terrain. Instead of looking for microbes like missions of the past, Curiosity will search for places that could have once hosted life. NASA's new Mars mission is primarily a geological expedition to an intriguing piece of real estate called the Gale Crater, located just south of the Martian equator. The crater's most striking feature is not the wide pit in the ground, but a 5-km-high mound of debris rising from the crater's floor. Scientists believe the mountain, Mount Sharp, located in the center of the basin, is the layered remains of sediment that once filled the crater. (SOUNDBITE) (English) ALLEN CHEN, ENTRY, DESCENT AND LANDING OPERATIONS LEAD, SAYING: "It's kind of like the Grand Canyon. When you have that, you have access to all sorts of parts of Mars's history and it's organized. Everything's in layers, it's not all jumbled up where you have to put it together like some kind of jigsaw puzzle." Previous missions to Mars revealed compelling evidence that the planet was once warmer and wetter than the cold, dry desert it is today. (SOUNDBITE) (English) ROB MANNING, CHIEF ENGINEER OF JET PROPULSION LABORATORY'S MARS PROGRAM, SAYING: "We'll be able to look at a time when Mars was very young about the same time on this planet, because they were formed at the same time, when Earth and Mars was very similar, both wet and very conducive for the development of single cell organisms which may have happened on Mars." If the rover touches down safely, scientists expect to have two years to collect information about Mount Sharp and the surrounding area. Sarah Sheffer, Reuters