The next mission to Mars will play in the mud — or what was mud in the distant past. The rover will land in a crater that looks like it was once filled with water. And even though it’s dry now, the crater should hold many secrets about Mars’s watery past.
The launch window for Mars Science Laboratory opens Friday. The rover, which weighs about a ton and is as big as a car, will land next August in Gale Crater, a wide, deep basin with a tall mountain at its center.
The mountain is surrounded by what looks like a river delta — a place where water once emptied into the crater. And instruments aboard Mars orbiters show that rock layers at the bottom of the mountain contain minerals that were formed in a watery environment.
Over the past decade and a half, the main goal for all of NASA’s Mars missions has been to follow the water — to look for evidence of water in the planet’s past and present. And they’ve done just that. They’ve found frozen water in the polar ice caps and mixed with the dirt across much of the planet. They’ve found water in clouds, and evidence that liquid water sometimes squirts out from underground.
The point of the quest isn’t just water itself, though. Water is considered a necessary ingredient for life. So studying watery environments will help scientists determine whether anything lived on Mars in the distant past — and whether life could still inhabit Mars now. More about that tomorrow.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2011
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