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NASA will launch the Mars Science Laboratory on Nov. 26, 2011, to assess the past and present habitability of the Red Planet's surface. The mission will land Curiosity, a rover equipped with 10 instruments designed to search for evidence of elements needed to support life - namely, water and carbon-based materials - and to characterize life-limiting factors, such as the planet's radiation environment.

Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) led the development of the Radiation Assessment Detector, which will measure, for the first time, the radiation environment on the surface of Mars, measuring all the relevant energetic particle species originating from galactic cosmic rays, the Sun and other sources. Positioned in the left front corner of the rover, RAD is about the size of a coffee can and weighs about three pounds, but has capabilities of an Earth-bound instrument nearly 10 times its size. Its wide-angle telescope detects charged particles arriving from space, and the instrument also measures neutrons and gamma rays coming from Mars' atmosphere above, or the surface material below, the rover.

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