NASA unveils Mars rover Curiosity’s travel plans

August 18, 2012

The first destination of NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity will be an area near its Gale Crater landing site, where three kinds of terrain come together in a striking and unusual way.

The rover’s primary mission is to reach the base of Mount Sharp — a three-mile high mound with layers of exposed rock — as it searches for the building blocks of possible Martian microbial life.

But the six-wheeled Curiosity will first visit a site in a different direction because of the three adjoining rock formations, which scientists say could help them better understand the history of the crater and of Mars. They named the site Glenelg after a rock formation in northern Canada.

“Probably we’ll do a month worth of science there, maybe a little bit more,” lead mission scientist John Grotzinger told reporters during a conference call Friday. “Sometime toward the end of the calendar year, roughly, I would guess then we would turn our sights toward the trek to Mount Sharp.”

The timing of road trip to Glenelg depends in part on how well Curiosity cruises through the rest of its instrument check-out.

Soon, the rover will test-fire its powerful laser to pulverize a bit of bedrock uncovered by exhaust from Curiosity’s descent engine. A small telescope will then analyze the vaporized material to determine what minerals it contains.

The combined system, known as Chemistry & Camera, or ChemCam, is the first of its kind to be used on Mars. It is designed to make about 14,000 measurements throughout Curiosity’s mission, said lead instrument scientist Roger Wiens, with the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

“There’s a high-power laser that briefly projects several megawatts onto a pinhead-size spot on the surface of Mars,” Wiens said. “It creates a plasma, or a little ball of flame or spark.”

The telescope, which can observe the flash from up to about 25 feet away, then splits the light into its component wavelengths. Scientists use that information to determine the chemical composition of the rocks.

Travel to Glenelg, about 1,600 feet from Curiosity’s landing site, should take a month or longer, depending on how many stops scientists decide to make along the way. The name Glenelg is a palindrome — a word that reads the same backward — and particularly suited as the name for Curiosity’s first destination. That’s because the rover will have to come back through the site to head to Mount Sharp.

The one-ton nuclear-powered robotic science lab landed Aug. 6 in a large crater near Mars’s equator. Last week was largely spent uploading new “surface” software for the rover to replace the complex code used as it traveled 354 million miles to Mars and then successfully executed the most complex and daring landing ever tried.

— Reuters

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