NASA newest Mars rover, the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity, launched toward the Red Planet on November 26 at 10:02 a.m. EST (1502 GMT). The car-size spacecraft is the largest, most ambitious rover ever bound for Mars. The mission will pioneer precision landing technology and a sky-crane touchdown to place Curiosity near the foot of a mountain inside Gale Crater on August 6, 2012. During a nearly two-year prime mission after landing, the rover will investigate whether the region has ever offered conditions favorable for microbial life, including the chemical ingredients for life. To haul and wield its science payload, Curiosity is twice as long and five times as heavy as Spirit or Opportunity.
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Because of its one-ton mass, Curiosity is too heavy to employ airbags to cushion its landing as previous Mars rovers could. Part of the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft is a rocket-powered descent stage that will lower the rover on tethers as the rocket engines control the speed of descent. The mission’s landing site offers Curiosity access for driving to layers of the mountain inside Gale Crater. Observations from orbit have identified clay and sulfate minerals in the lower layers, indicating a wet history.