Road trip on tap for NASA's Mars rover
BY ALICIA CHANG Associated Press
Sunday, December 30, 2012
12/30/12 at 7:39 AM
PASADENA, Calif. - Since captivating the world with its acrobatic landing, the Mars rover Curiosity has fallen into a rhythm: Drive, snap pictures, zap at boulders, scoop up dirt. Repeat.
Topping its to-do list in the new year: Set off toward a Martian mountain - a trek that will take up a good chunk of the year.
"We'll probably be ready to hit the pedal to the metal and give the keys back to the rover drivers," mission chief scientist John Grotzinger said in a recent interview at his office on the sprawling NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory campus 15 miles east of downtown Los Angeles.
The road trip comes amid great expectations. After all, it's the reason the $2.5 billion mission targeted Gale Crater near the Martian equator. Soaring from the center of the ancient crater is a 3-mile-high peak with intriguing layers of rocks.
Curiosity's job is to figure out whether the landing site ever had the right environmental conditions to support microbes. Scientists already know water flowed in the past, thanks to the rover's discovery of an old streambed. Besides water, life also needs energy: the sun.
What's missing are the chemical building blocks of life: complex carbon-based molecules. If they're preserved on Mars, scientists figure the best place to hunt for them is at the base of Mount Sharp where images from space reveal hints of interesting geology.
Since scientists want to command the six-wheel rover to rest and examine rocky outcrops along the way, it'll be a nine-month odyssey.
Before Curiosity can tackle a mountain, there's unfinished business to tend to. After spending the holiday taking measurements of the Martian atmosphere, Curiosity gears up for the first task of the new year: Finding the perfect rock to bore into.
The exercise - from picking a rock to drilling to deciphering its chemical makeup - is expected to last a month.
"We have promised everybody that we're going to go slowly," said Grotzinger, a geologist at the California Institute of Technology.
Original Print Headline: Road trip on tap for NASA's Mars rover
This file image provided by NASA shows the base of Mount Sharp on Mars. The Curiosity rover is set to drive toward the mountain in mid-February after drilling into a rock. The image was taken on Aug. 23. NASA / JPL-Caltech / Associated Press