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Mars rover to try out new strategy for finding alien life

Unlike previous missions to the Red Planet, the Mars Curiosity rover will focus on Martian geology. 

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In this 2011 artist's rendering, 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. Curiosity is set to land in a crater near the Martian equator in August 2012 to begin a two-year mission.

JPL-Caltech/NASA/AP/File

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This summer, if all goes well, a robotic geologist will arrive on Mars to try out a new strategy for searching for life beyond Earth.

Rather than hunt for microbes like the Viking missions of the 1970s, NASA's Mars Science Laboratory, a wheeled rover nicknamed Curiosity, will look for places that could have hosted and preserved life.

"The term 'life-detection' is so ill-defined and so hard to ascertain it doesn't make a good starting point," said geologist John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology, who is the lead scientist for the Curiosity mission.

Instead, NASA's new Mars mission, scheduled for landing on Aug. 6, is primarily a geological expedition to an intriguing piece of real estate called Gale Crater, located just south of the Martian equator.

Scientists believe the crater formed some 3.5 billion to 3.8 billion years ago when Mars, Earth and the rest of the planets in the inner solar system were regularly bombarded by meteorites.

Gale's most striking feature is not the 96-mile (154-km) wide pit in the ground, but a 3-mile-high a(5-km-high) mound of debris rising from the crater's floor. Scientists believe the mountain, located in the center of the basin, is the layered remains of sediment that once filled the crater.

Over time and by a process not well understood, the sediment was carried away, leaving what is now known as Mount Sharp, which scientists hope will reveal the geological history of Mars like no similar formation can do on Earth.

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