NASA picks landing site for next Mars probe

Washington, July 23 - NASA's next Mars rover will land at the foot of a mountain inside the planet's Gale crater, the US space agency has announced.

The car-sized Mars Science Laboratory - or Curiosity - is scheduled to be launched later this year and land in August 2012, Xinhua reported.

The target crater spans 154 km in diameter and holds a mountain rising from the crater floor. The crater is named after Australian astronomer Walter F. Gale.

"Mars is firmly in our sights," said NASA administrator Charles Bolden in a statement.

"Curiosity not only will return a wealth of important science data, but it will serve as a precursor mission for human exploration to the Red Planet," he said.

Curiosity is about twice as long and more than five times as heavy as any previous Mars rover. Its 10 science instruments include two for ingesting and analyzing samples of powdered rock that the rover's robotic arm collects.

"Scientists identified Gale as their top choice to pursue the ambitious goals of this new rover mission," said Jim Green, director for the Planetary Science Division at the NASA headquarters in Washington.

"The site offers a visually dramatic landscape and also great potential for significant science findings," he said.

The rover and other spacecraft components are being assembled and undergoing final testing. The mission is targeted to launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida between Nov 25 and Dec 18. (IANS)