NASA noted that as of last Friday its biggest Mars explorer ever will be within 100 days of landing on the surface or the red planet.
NASA said at that precise time, the mission has about 119 million miles (191 million kilometers) to go and is closing at a speed of 13,000 mph (21,000 kilometers per hour).
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NASA launched the one-ton Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft on Nov. 26, 2011 which will ultimately deliver the rover Curiosity to the surface the planet on Aug. 5, 2012. NASA said Curiosity's landing site is near the base of a mountain known as Mount Sharp inside Gale Crater, near the Martian equator. Researchers plan to use Curiosity to study layers in the mountain that hold evidence about wet environments of early Mars.
According to NASA, Mount Sharp rises about 3 miles (5 kilometers) above the landing target on the crater floor, higher than Mount Rainier above Seattle, though broader and closer. It is not simply a rebound peak from the asteroid impact that excavated Gale Crater. A rebound peak may be at its core, but the mountain displays hundreds of flat-lying geological layers that may be read as chapters in a more complex history billions of years old. Several craters on Mars contain mounds or mesas that may have formed in ways similar to Mount Sharp, and many other ancient craters remain filled or buried by rock layers. Some examples, including Gale, hold a mound higher than the surrounding crater rim, indicating that the mounds are remnant masses inside once completely filled craters. This presents a puzzle about how environmental conditions on Mars evolved, NASA said.
"Landing an SUV-sized vehicle next to the side of a mountain 85 million miles from home is always stimulating. Our engineering and science teams continue their preparations for that big day and the surface operations to follow." said Pete Theisinger, Mars Science Laboratory project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., in a statement.
NASA calls the laboratory, which is expected to operate for at least two years once it arrives, the biggest astrobiology mission to Mars ever. The Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity will carry the biggest, most advanced suite of instruments for scientific studies ever sent to the Martian surface. Curiosity will use an onboard laboratory to study rocks, soils, and the local geologic setting in order to detect chemical building blocks of life.
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