John's key role in Mars mission
A space scientist is playing a key part in a Nasa mission to discover if there is potential for life on Mars.
The Mars Science Laboratory Rover, a $2.5 billion robot, was to be launched on its journey to the red planet today.
John Bridges, of the University of Leicester's space centre, is heading a team of scientists who will analyse the data it transmits back when it touches down on the surface of Mars in August.
The information could help determine whether Mars was once a habitable place – or could be in the future.
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Dr Bridges, who is at Kennedy Space Centre, in America, to watch the launch of the Atlas V rocket transporting the robot, said: "Although we are pretty confident about some of the things we will be looking at, I'm sure it will bring up some surprises and a lot of new and important information about the environment.
"The launch will be exciting but there will be some tension."
When it lands on Mars in August, the rover, Curiosity, will travel around Gale Crater on the planet for 23 months, looking at sediments that could help explain the planet's past.
Curiosity is carrying a toolkit including a camera, drill, metallic brush and laser to help discern what is on the surface of the red planet.
It can carry out close-up inspections and analyse samples from rocks, soils and the atmosphere.
The rover, which is the size of a small car, has a plutonium battery to keep it going.
Dr Bridges said: "This rover is five times heavier than the last rover that went to Mars so this is a real step forward. We will be able to do analysis over a longer period of time and, fingers crossed, my hope is it could last up to 10 years."
Dr Bridges and the other scientists will conduct their research at Nasa's jet propulsion laboratory in Pasadena, California.
He said: "We are looking at the conditions on Mars but our particular emphasis will be on hydrothermal minerals.
"We know there were flows of water through the rocks on Mars, so we will be trying to determine the temperature of the water and how acid and alkaline it was.
"The ones we are talking about on the Gale Crater date back to ancient times – about 3.8 million years ago."
Mission manager Wanda Harding has said: "Twenty years from now, I think they'll consider this a true landmark mission, a great stepping stone for human exploration."