After years of speculation and debate as to where the next Mars rover, Curiosity (aka Mars Science Laboratory), will land on Mars, we now know the answer – Gale crater.
Gale is about 154 kilometres (96 miles) in diameter, with a mountain range in the centre that is about 5 kilometres (3 miles) in height, taller than Mount Rainier near Seattle, which has extensive layering from various deposits throughout Mars’ history. The layers at the base contain both clays and sulfates, both of which form in water. Clays are of particular interest since they tend to occur in more alkaline water, as opposed to acidic water, evidence of which had already been examined by the two previous rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. (And just to note, Opportunity is now only about 1-2 weeks away from its next prime destination, Endeavour crater, which also has clays in some areas near its rim, the first seen by the rover). The landing site also contains alluvial fans thought to have been formed by flowing water, valleys, channels and other mounds; the terrain is similar to that found inside the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley on Earth, which will provide some very scenic vistas!
But Gale was also chosen of course for its scientific potential, from over 60 initial possible locations. Curiosity will search for organic compunds, the building blocks of life, which may be preserved in the sediments as they are on Earth. Curiosity is about twice as large and five times as heavy as Spirit and Opportunity and will be launched later this year, and land on Mars in August 2012.