Curiosity Begins Mars Roadtrip

Posted July 9th, 2013 at 5:42 pm (UTC-4)
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This mosaic of images from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA's Mars rover Curiosity shows the rover's destination Mount Sharp in a white-balanced color adjustment that makes the sky look overly blue but shows the terrain as if under Earth-like lighting. (NASA/JPL/MSL)

This mosaic of images from the Mast Camera on NASA’s Mars rover shows Curiosity’s destination: Mount Sharp. A white-balanced color adjustment makes the sky look overly blue, but also shows the terrain as if under Earth-like lighting. (NASA)

Curiosity has taken off on a year-long roadtrip, which is how long it will take the Mars rover to travel the eight kilometers needed to reach its Mount Sharp destination.

NASA said the journey began last week from an area called Glenelg, which is about 400 meters east-southeast of Curiosity’s landing site.  According to mission officials, the rover drove about 18 meters toward Mount Sharp on July 4, and another 40 meters on July 7, traveling a total of about 58 meters toward its destination, with 7,942 meters to go.

Curiosity can travel an average of 30 meters per hour – depending on variables such as power levels, slippage, steep terrain and visibility – but the rover will take its time getting to Mount Sharp, stopping, or possibly backtracking, should it spot something of interest. Challenging terrain could also slow the rover’s progress.

This view from the left Navigation Camera (Navcam) of NASA's Mars Rover Curiosity looks back at wheel tracks made during the first drive away from the last science target in the "Glenelg" area. The drive commenced a long trek toward the mission's long-term destination: Mount Sharp.  (NASA/JPL/MSL)

NASA’s Mars Rover Curiosity looks back at wheel tracks made during the first drive away from the  Glenelg area, as it heads towards the foothills of Mount Sharp. (NASA)

The mission team is anxious for Curiosity to explore the lower layers of Mount Sharp, where they expect to find evidence of how the ancient Martian environment changed and evolved.

Each of the layers offers an opportunity to look back into Mars’ geological history, said Rob Manning, the Mars Science Laboratory’s (MSL) chief engineer. Curiosity’s mission to Mars is scheduled to last one Martian year, about 687 Earth days.  But, if the rover continues to operate, NASA could extend its mission, allowing Curiosity to continue its journey up Mount Sharp.

“We will continue going up and explore and explore,” Manning said.

Since beginning its mission after last August’s landing, Curiosity has made a number of discoveries, including finding evidence of an ancient wet environment with conditions favorable for microbial life.

Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.

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