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Mars science lab 'Curiosity' to launch 'extraterrestrial real-estate appraisal'

After a decade of "following the water," planetary scientists want to see if water co-existed with other critical environmental conditions that could have allowed simple forms of life to emerge.

In this artist's rendering provided by, the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover examines a rock on Mars with a set of tools at the end of its arm, which extends about 7 feet. The mobile robot is designed to investigate Mars' past or present ability to sustain microbial life.

JPL-Caltech/NASA/AP

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Mars Science Laboratory, a one-ton chemistry lab on wheels set for launch Saturday morning from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, is geared for a unique mission.

Think "extraterrestrial real-estate appraisal," says Pamela Conrad, an astrobiologist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

We're not quite ready to hunt for life itself yet, and the MSL rover isn't designed to do so, say researchers taking part in the $2.5-billion mission to the red planet.

IN PICTURES: Exploring Mars

But after a decade of "following the water" – a necessary ingredient for life as researchers currently understand it – planetary scientists are moving to take the next critical step: see if water co-existed with other critical environmental conditions that could have allowed simple forms of life to emerge.

Organisms on Earth take the forms they do because they are adapted to their environments, MSL researchers explain. If humans eventually hunt for evidence of life itself on the Red Planet, or anywhere else, for that matter, knowing something about the environment organisms inhabit will yield clues about what the organisms were or are like.

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