- Mars rover "Curiosity" will assess whether the Red Planet is, or ever was, suitable for life.
- The landing site, Gale Crater, sports a three-mile high mountain of layered sediment, which holds the chemical history of Mars' past.
- A key find would be the discovery of organic materials, none of which have yet been found on Mars.
For more than a decade, robotic probes sent to Mars have been searching for signs of past water, believed to be one of the key ingredients for life.
Now, NASA opens a new chapter in the search for extraterrestrial life with an ambitious mission to find life's habitats, and possibly even organics, on Mars.
"I'd be surprised if we landed on the surface (of Mars) and didn't find something that looked like it could have been a formerly habitable environment," said California Institute of Technology planetary scientist John Grotzinger, lead researcher for NASA's Mars Science Laboratory.
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But what scientists really want to find is organic carbon - molecules containing carbon that are derived from organic processes - if indeed any has been preserved in the harsh Martian environment.