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Where did life exist on Mars? NASA chooses landing site for Curiosity rover

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Curiosity, in that way, represents a significant step toward breaking down the technological barriers that have prevented scientists from going where they want in our cosmic neighborhood.

“Geologists like to climb up cliffs, and scientists get to do this for the first time on Mars with this rover,” said Dawn Summer, a geologist at the University of California at Davis, who was a panelist at the announcement Friday. “There is an incredibly rich suite” of things to investigate, she adds, “and it is an incredibly beautiful place.”

Curiosity has been billed as NASA’s first astrobiology mission since Viking arrived on Mars in 1976. Its goal is not to find direct evidence of past life – no fossil-hunting here. Instead, it will look for where and when Mars might once have been habitable – a step further than the Opportunity and Spirit rovers went in seeking signatures of water in 2004.

The rocket holding Curiosity is set to launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida between Nov. 25 and Dec. 18 of this year, and the rover should arrive on Mars in August 2012.

The Gale crater landing site announced Friday was chosen from among 60 original candidate sites, which NASA had whittled down to four finalists by last summer. The clincher? The mountain sitting inside Gale crater is a mystery that may hold the history of water – and potentially life – on Mars.

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