NASA’s next Mars rover — the ambitious, beleaguered, delayed Mars Science Laboratory — finally has a destination.
Mission scientists announced Friday that the rover, a nuclear-powered vehicle the size of a small S.U.V., would head to Gale Crater, a 96-mile-wide depression near the Martian equator. What attracted them there is a mountain that rises upward nearly three miles at the center, making it taller, for example, than Mount Rainier outside Seattle.
“The thing about this mountain is it’s not a tall spire,” John P. Grotzinger, the project scientist, said at a news conference at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington. “It’s a broad, low, moundlike shape. What it means is we can drive up it with a rover. So this might be the tallest mountain anywhere in the solar system that we could actually climb with a rover.”
Scientists initially identified 100 possible landing sites, which were narrowed down to four finalists. All of the four were intriguing, Dr. Grotzinger said, and getting the scientists to agree on one was like getting a group of people to decide on one flavor of ice cream.
“In the end, we picked the one that felt best,” he said……
Scheduled to launch after Thanksgiving, the Mars Science Laboratory — less formally known as Curiosity — is to arrive on Mars the following August, landing on the flat portion of the crater. The area is covered by sediments that were probably washed there by flowing water long ago.
As the rover climbs upward during its two-year mission, it will pass different geological layers, much like those at the Grand Canyon.
“It’s like reading a novel,” said Dr. Grotzinger, a professor of geology at the California Institute of Technology, “and we think Gale Crater is going to be a great novel about the early environmental evolution of Mars.”
In particular, the rover will look at outcrops of clays and sulfates, minerals that form in the presence of water.
If the rover continues to operate after two years, it could keep climbing up the mountain to investigate even more rocks.
The Mars Science Laboratory is much bigger and heavier than the last two rovers NASA sent to Mars, Spirit and Opportunity. Unlike those two, which were solar-powered, Curiosity will generate its electrical power from heat produced by 10 pounds of plutonium. That will make it less susceptible to the changing Martian seasons and to dust storms that block sunlight. And it will mean that the rover can carry more sophisticated instruments, like a laser to vaporize pieces of rocks and machinery to identify elements of the resulting smoke.
The Mars Science Laboratory was originally scheduled for launching two years ago, but it could not meet that target because of technical problems. NASA then had to wait until the orbital positions of Mars and Earth lined up again. In the meantime, the cost of the mission, originally estimated at $1.6 billion, has continued to rise: NASA announced in June another infusion of $44 million, bringing the current cost to $2.5 billion.