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NASA's Next Destination: Mars

Scientists have chosen the landing site for the latest mission to Mars - a relatively smooth spot 500 miles from the red planet's south pole, reports CBS News Correspondent Sandra Hughes.

NASA scientists hope to land a robot spacecraft on a gently rolling plain near Mars' South Pole next December.

If all goes as planned, the Mars polar lander will be touching down at a mere 5 mph and immediately start collecting data. It will be summer at the pole, so the solar-powered lander will get 24 hours of Martian daylight.

"This will be the land of the midnight sun when we arrive. The temperatures are still pretty cold. They get to almost 100 degrees Celsius below zero," said project scientist Richard Zurek.

The lander will dig into the surface, looking for ice or chemical evidence of a watery past on Mars.

"We chose a location with some surface features, but no cliffs or jagged peaks," said Zurek, the project chief at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Zurek said the Mars Polar Lander site appears to have layers of dust and ice of varying thickness that could contain a record of climate changes.

"In a sense, digging into its surface will be like reading tree rings or layers in an ice core," Zurek said in a statement Tuesday. "In addition, we may find evidence of soil particles that formed in ancient seas on Mars and were later blown into the polar region."

The landing will be centered in a target zone 124 miles long and 12.4 miles wide. It is 76 degrees south latitude and 195 degrees west longitude, near the Martian South Pole.

Scientists selected the site after studying pictures and other data from the Mars Global Surveyor, a craft now orbiting Mars.

The Mars Polar Lander is scheduled to touch down Dec. 3, near the end of the spring season in the Martian southern hemisphere. During this time, the target area will be in constant sunlight, an important factor, given that the spacecraft gets its power from solar panels.

Mars Polar Lander was launched Jan. 3. Just before the craft enters the Martian atmosphere, it will release two penetrating probes that will punch beneath the soil surface to look for water ice near the landing site.

"If we find evidence that these minerals are there, then there must have been a time, perhaps very early in the Mars history, when there were standing bodies of water on the surface," said Zurek.

The existence of large amounts of surface water, it's believed, increases the possibility that at least bacteria-primitive life once developed on Mars. Later unmanned missions are planned to bring back actual rocks and soil from the still mysterious planet.

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