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NASA says Mars mountain will read like 'a great novel'

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This computer-generated view shows Mars' Gale crater as if seen from an aircraft northwest of the crater. Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/UA.

WASHINGTON (AFP): The US space agency's unmanned Curiosity rover will explore a mountain on Mars that should read like "a great novel," revealing if signs of life ever existed on the red planet, NASA has said.

The landing site for the 2.5 billion dollar Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) was unveiled the day after the 30-year shuttle era ended with the return to Earth of Atlantis after its final mission to the International Space Station.

Clues sent home from Mars are important to NASA as it aims to build a spaceship capable of toting humans there by 2030, while private companies race to replace the shuttle with a capsule suitable for low-Earth orbit.

More than 150 scientists have spent years whittling down the landing site for Curiosity, the largest US rover ever, set to launch later this year and land in August 2012.

From an initial set of 30 potential spots, they finally decided on the Gale crater, which contains a five kilometre (three mile) high mountain, over its leading rival the Eberswalde crater, which is home to a dried-up river delta.

"In the end we picked the one that felt best," said John Grotzinger, MSL project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

"This could be the tallest mountain in the solar system that we could actually climb with a rover," he said.

The mountain, tucked inside the 154 kilometre (96 mile) wide crater, reaches higher than any peak in the continental United States but is shaped like a broad mound so the six-wheeled rover can climb at least halfway up.

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NASA  Mars  Curiosity  
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