NASA’s Curiosity Rover has ended its sedentary lifestyle. It enters another phase of collecting data for the scientists at NASA as it makes its historic road trip to Mount Mordor — er, make that Mount Sharp.
Mount Sharp is a mysterious mountain that rises 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers) into the Red Planet sky, and the Curiosity rover will explore its foothills.
Curiosity is headed toward a spot about 5 miles (8 km) away that will afford it access to Mount Sharp’s lower reaches. This particular area is the rover’s ultimate science destination; the mission team wants Curiosity to climb up through the mountain’s foothills.
Curiosity’s not taking a Ring with it, to be tossed into a Martian volcano. It’s going to take many months for the rover to reach its destination. When it gets there, it will likely look for more signs of past life, by drilling rocks and taking soil samples.
This is what Curiosity, which is also called the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), has been doing for the past seven months, at Yellowknife Bay, just east of its touchdown point, in the Gale Crater.
On the way to Yellowknife Bay, Curiosity identified rocks sculpted by flowing water in the distant past. Then, at Yellowstone Bay, the rover found mudstones that were very probably deposited billions of years ago in a lake.
NASA engineers, on Friday, gave the command to Curiosity to make an 18m drive. On Monday, the one-ton vehicle traveled 40m more. It might take the vehicle up to a year to get to Mount Sharp, but that’s okay with NASA.
The journey to a goal is sometimes as important, if not more so, than the goal itself. The rover will likely stop at many points of interest along the route to the foothills of Mount Sharp to examine whatever might interest NASA’s scientists.
As Curiosity project manager Jim Erickson, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., told reporters last month:
We are on a mission of exploration. If we come across scientifically interesting areas, we are going to stop and examine them before continuing the journey.”
One of the many challenges that will face Curiosity is to steer clear of a long bank of sand dunes that might be a potential trap it would wallow in. Also, NASA scientists want the rover to get to a specific site where satellites have indicated there are layers of sediment that may have been laid down in water.
“We are looking for the best path though,” stated Curiosity Project Manager Jim Erickson of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. at a recent media briefing.
One reason that Mount Sharp is an appealing destination is that billions of years of Mars geologic history are preserved in the sedimentary layers of Mount Sharp. These layers include the ancient time period when the Red Planet was presumably far wetter and warmer than today, and thus potentially more hospitable to the origin of life.
Written by: Douglas Cobb