NASA's Mars Curiosity rover is beginning a long-awaited, 5-mile-long journey across the terrain of the red planet to begin exploring a rocky area known as Mount Sharp, 11 months after the rover arrived on the planet's surface, according to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
"With drives on July 4 and July 7, NASA's Mars rover Curiosity has departed its last science target in the 'Glenelg' area and commenced a many-month overland journey to the base of the mission's main destination, Mount Sharp," NASA reported in a July 8 announcement.
The Mount Sharp destination, which is in the middle of what's known as Gale Crater, is important to scientists working on the mission because it "exposes many layers where scientists anticipate finding evidence about how the ancient Martian environment changed and evolved," according to the JPL. "In the Glenelg area, where Curiosity worked for the first half of 2013, the rover found evidence for an ancient wet environment that had conditions favorable for microbial life. This means the mission already accomplished its main science objective."
Although Mount Sharp is still a key destination for the mission, the work done by the rover so far has also uncovered other fascinating science, Ashwin Vasavada, the deputy project scientist for Curiosity at the JPL, told eWEEK.
"We chose this landing site because of Mount Sharp," said Vasavada. "Then once we landed, we noticed we were pretty close to another feature that we saw from orbit, so we drove the rover away from Mount Sharp to check it out."
That resulted in a six- to seven-month detour to explore an area around an ancient river system, which is now dry, in a valley that's called Peace Vallis, he said. What the rover found there was the remnants of a former river, which spread out across the crater floor like a fan, where conditions could have existed for life on Mars, he said.
"We found this at the edge of this fan," said Vasavada. "We chose to make this detour to check it out."
The rover's on-board gear and experiments packages drilled into the rocks there and "came to the conclusion that it was indeed a potentially habitable environment on ancient Mars."
Despite those findings, however, no evidence of any life forms have been discovered, he said.
The rover is expected to take nine months to a year to reach Mount Sharp, due to the care that must be used in crossing the unknown terrain, he said. "We really don't know the terrain until we see it up close" as the rover traverses the planet, he said.
Scientists are excited by the coming exploration of Mount Sharp, said Vasavada, because the continuing exploration will reveal if the areas explored so far have similar or different geologic makeup. "It could be different geology from the riverbed," he said. "Mount Sharp is a 3-mile-high mountain composed of layered rock."
Scientists so far think that the mountain was formed when erosion went on around it, either by water or air, he said, but the experiments that lay ahead will provide more answers in the future. "We don't think it was from volcanism. It was more likely layered by water or air. We do know that water has played a part in eroding the mountain at some point."
The rover itself will get an up-close look at the geology as it is driven up a canyon where a former stream bed was found, he said. "We hope these layers have captured some of that early history."
Since landing on Mars on Aug. 6, 2012, the rover has been undergoing testing, software updates and initial experiments on soil samples on the surface of the planet.
At the end of June, it conducted a close-up investigation of a target sedimentary outcrop of rock called Shaler, according to NASA, then began heading away from Shaler on July 4. The vehicle travels very slowly, initially traveling 59 feet away from Shaler that day, then adding another 131-foot excursion away from the site on July 7. Both trips put the rover on a course heading to Mount Sharp, which sits about 5 miles away, NASA reported.
In June, NASA released a spectacular 1.3 billion-pixel image of the surface of Mars, which was stitched together from almost 900 images taken by special cameras mounted on the Curiosity rover. The image can be explored using panning and scanning tools on NASA's Website.
"The full-circle scene surrounds the site where Curiosity collected its first scoops of dusty sand at a windblown patch called 'Rocknest,' and extends to Mount Sharp on the horizon," according to NASA.
The images used to create the massive photograph include some 850 frames taken using the telephoto camera of Curiosity's Mast Camera instrument, supplemented with 21 frames from the Mastcam's wider-angle camera and 25 black-and-white frames from the on-board Navigation Camera, according to NASA. The images were taken from October to November in 2012.
Much of the science world has been abuzz with excitement since Curiosity's landing.
Curiosity successfully fired its rock-melting laser for the first time on Aug. 19, 2012, as it ran through tests to be sure that the work of its science experiments will be able to proceed as planned. The rover has been taking spectacular photographs on Mars since arriving after a 354-million-mile, eight-month voyage from Earth.
One of Curiosity's main tasks on Mars is checking for organic compounds, the carbon-containing chemicals that can be ingredients for life, according to NASA.
Even as the Curiosity rover continues its exploration of Mars, NASA is already planning another scientific rover mission to the red planet, set for 2020, according to an earlier eWEEK report. NASA's continuing exploration of Mars with scientific rovers on the red planet's surface will continue into 2020, when the space agency plans to launch another robotic science rover based on its successful Curiosity rover as part of a "robust multiyear program" aimed at preparing the nation's space program to send humans to a Mars orbit by the 2030s.
The 2020 Mars rover program, which has not yet been named, would reuse designs, parts and technology from the current Curiosity rover. By reusing Curiosity's successful blueprints, the space agency expects to save a lot of money in development costs, while continuing its exploration of the planet.
Full details of what that 2020 Mars mission will entail have not yet been determined. The specific payload and science instruments for the mission will be debated and selected later through an open competition after the scientific objectives for the mission have been formulated, according to NASA. The mission will also be contingent on receiving adequate funding.
The JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif., and manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C., according to NASA. The JPL designed and built the project's Curiosity rover.