NASA's Curiosity probe is scheduled to make landfall on Mars early Monday. If the nail-biter landing goes according to plan, the $2.5 billion probe will be looking in a massive crater for conditions that may have once hosted life.
If you're hunting for places where Mars once might have hosted life, it's tough to beat Gale Crater – a 96-mile-wide dent in the Martian crust and the target for NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission.
Early Monday morning, the mission's one-ton, Mini Cooper-sized, $2.5 billion rover named Curiosity is slated to touch down inside the crater in what scientists say will be the most pinpoint, harrowing landing ever attempted on the Martian surface.
[Editor's note: The original version of this story gave the incorrect weight for the Curiosity rover.]
While the risks are high – NASA refers to the landing as “seven minutes of terror” – so is the potential payback as the Mars Science Laboratory team tries to answer the question: Did Mars ever have the conditions that would have allowed life to emerge?
IN PICTURES: Exploring Mars
The answer is intimately tied to the presence of water on the Martian surface early in the planet's history. Water is essential for life to gain and maintain a foothold on any planet, researchers say.
The Gale Crater straddles the boundary between the planet's southern, crater-pocked highlands and the smoother northern lowlands, according to John Grotzinger, a planetary scientist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif., and the mission's project scientist.
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