Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Scientists plot driving routes for new Mars rover

NASA's new rover, Curiosity, has yet to make its first move on Mars, but scientists said Tuesday they are already mapping out possible driving routes to a Martian mountain.

Since landing in Gale Crater near the equator last week, the nuclear-powered rover has been busy getting a head-to-wheel health checkup while parked. It touched down about 5 miles from Mount Sharp, where signatures of past water have been spotted at the base.

The rover's ultimate goal is to scale the lower slopes in search of the chemical building blocks of life to determine whether the environment was favorable for microbial life.

The team is "kind of itching to move at this point," said deputy project scientist Ashwin Vasavada of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, which manages the $2.5 billion mission.

The terrain where the rover landed appears easy to traverse but the landscape gets more rugged the closer to Mount Sharp. The team identified six potential paths through buttes and mesas that are reminiscent of the southwestern United States.

Vasavada estimated it'll take a year to make the trip to the mountain driving about the length of a football field a day. Along the way, the six-wheel rover will make pit stops to study interesting rocks and scoop up soil.

Before Curiosity can explore, it has to go through a laborious check of its tools and systems. It just completed an upgrade to its computers and planned to take its first, albeit short, test drive in several days. Engineers still have to test the rover's robotic arm and drill this month before giving the keys to scientists.

"We're trying to just keep our eyes on the prize and finish these checkouts and then get going," Vasavada said.

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