Sending a robotic spacecraft to another planet is an audacious, expensive and dangerous adventure—so Curiosity won’t set down just anywhere. The target is Gale Crater, one of the most interesting places on the planet. And “most interesting” is not just some subjective label. Teams of scientists worked for years, poring over maps and surveys taken from orbit, analyzing and hotly debating with one another as they narrowed down the choices from more than 60 amazing sites down to just four, then down to the winner. This great lecture briefly reviews what the Mars explorers were looking for and how they finally made their decision.
They passed up some incredible spots in order to pick this one, because Gale Crater has it all. Named for an amateur astronomer, the crater is about 154 kilometers wide. Its central peak is 5.5 km high (more than than three miles), and is informally named Mt. Sharp after a pioneering Mars scientist. It contains exposed layers of rock with chemical signatures that hint at a time when the planet was a wetter and warmer potential home for life. Besides all that, there are dry stream beds, fields of dunes, and deep, winding canyons all within driving range of the landing site.
If you’d like a preview of what Curiosity might find when it arrives in August, here are some images to explore.