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Mars rover: Scientists target huge crater in the search for signs of life (+video)

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.    

Team members at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory share the challenges of the Curiosity Mars rover's final minutes to landing on the surface of Mars.
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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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