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'Cool geology' ahead in US Mars mission

  • This artist's concept features NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, a mobile robot for investigating Mars' past or present ability to sustain microbial life. (REUTERS/NASA-JPL/Handout)

WASHINGTON: NASA said Thursday all was well ahead of its landmark mission to Mars, with its most advanced robotic rover poised to hunt for clues about past life and water on Earth's nearest planetary neighbor.

On a mission to seek out signs of environments that once sustained life, the landing of the Mars Science Laboratory, carrying the largest and most sophisticated rover and toolkit ever built, is set for 1:31 am August 6 (0531 GMT).

"The mission is going extremely well," said Pete Theisinger, director of the Engineering and Science Directorate at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

"Everything is really on track... so we are really good to go three days out."

If all continues to go well, the unmanned rover will touch down in Gale Crater, one of the lowest points on Mars, where scientists believe the waters of ancient Martian rivers flowing downhill once pooled.

The crater also contains a mountain that rises higher than any in the 48 continental US states, and should provide loads of information about the past through its sedimentary layers.

"When we do (land), we will have started an era of a whole new dimension of space exploration on the surface of another planet, and this is the dimension of deep time," said John Grotzinger, project scientist for the Mars Science Laboratory.

Describing Mars as a "planet that is kind of like our cousin," Grotzinger said he was hopeful that many questions would be answered on the mission, including how the once wet planet became so dry.

The mountain, Mount Sharp, is near Mars' equator and may hold as much as a billion years of history in its layers, dating back some three to four billion years ago "when the planet may have been more like Earth had been," he told reporters.

"We've got some cool geology to do ahead of us."

A complicated rocket powered sky crane maneuver to lower the one-ton vehicle onto the surface will be tested in real conditions for the first time.

Doug McCuistion, director of NASA's Mars Exploration Program, said the team would do its best to "stick the landing."

"This is a pretty amazing feat getting ready to happen," he said.

 
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