Thursday, December 14, 2017

Road trip on tap for NASA's Mars rover in new year

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.

The original itinerary called for starting the drive before the Times Square ball drop, but Curiosity lingered longer than planned at a pit stop, delaying the trip. Curiosity will now head for Mount Sharp in mid February after it drills into its first rock.

"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 as we know it 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.

It's a six-month journey if Curiosity drives nonstop. But since scientists will want to command the six-wheel rover to rest and examine rocky outcrops along the way, it'll turn into 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 more than a month.

"We have promised everybody that we're going to go slowly," said Grotzinger, a geologist at the California Institute of Technology.

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