Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Mars rover Curiosity set to hit the road again

LOS ANGELES — After playing in the sand, the Curiosity rover is poised to trek across the Martian landscape in search of a rock to drill, scientists said Thursday.

The six-wheel rover has been parked for more than a month at a sand dune where it has been scooping up soil, sniffing the atmosphere and measuring radiation levels. Its next task is to zero in on a rock and head for it.

Mission deputy scientist Ashwin Vasavada expected Curiosity to be on the move in the "next few days."

"It's the bedrock which really gives you the story of ancient Mars," said Vasavada of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which manages the $2.5 billion mission. "The soil is a little harder to interpret because we don't know how old it is or where it came from."

The car-size rover touched down in Gale Crater, an ancient depression near the Martian equator, in August on a two-year mission to probe whether the landing site once had conditions capable of supporting microbial life. Armed with a high-tech suite of instruments, it's the most sophisticated spacecraft to ever land on the red planet.

During the first three months, a weather station aboard Curiosity detected brief drops in air pressure, a sign of whirlwinds in the region.

"These events are starting to occur more and more often," said Manuel de la Torre Juarez of NASA JPL. "We expect to see more in the future."

Curiosity's ultimate destination is a 3-mile-high mountain at the center of the crater floor that's rich in mineral deposits.

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