NASA on Curiosity bot: Mission accomplished (for now at least)

Less rolling and more drilling ahead as Rover reaches Mount Sharp

Curiosity self-portrait at Rocknest in the Gale Crater

Pics NASA and JPL scientists have declared the first stage of Curiosity's ongoing mission to explore strange new places on Mars a success, after the laser-equipped space tank reached the foothills of Mount Sharp.

The road ahead for Curiosity

The winding road ahead for Curiosity (click to enlarge)

"Curiosity now will begin a new chapter from an already outstanding introduction to the world," said Jim Green, director of NASA's Planetary Science Division at a press conference on Thursday. "After a historic and innovative landing along with its successful science discoveries, the scientific sequel is upon us."

The rover has already completed one of its key goals, proving that not only did Mars once have oceans of water but that it also has the nutrients required for microbial life, when it drilled into Yellowknife Bay. Now the space tank will roll carefully up the side of Mount Sharp, drilling as it goes, and the team hopes to find more signs of life that could have existed on the Red Planet.

Using images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), boffins at JPL have now mapped out a new course for the rover to climb up part of the mountain, which has a peak 18,000ft above the surface. Curiosity's not trying to get to the top, but will be examining the layers of rock exposed by the mountain.

Curiosity's new road map

Curiosity's new road map

The new course will cut about a kilometer from the robot's original route. Curiosity Project Scientist John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology said the short cut wasn't to help preserve the damaged wheels of Curiosity, but because the MRO spotted some 18 metre-tall mesas, dubbed Murray Buttes, that look very interesting indeed.

"The reason we're turning is because the geology looks so darned good we can't resist it," he explained, adding that if the team's theories are right there will be a major science announcement from NASA within months.

What makes these rocks so interesting is that they aren't red, but instead blue-green with white veins running through them. Curiosity has seen this kind of rock before at the Bonanza King drill site, but the rock sample was too unstable for the rover the delve into.

Murray Buttes

These water-washed rocks could contain the remains of primitive life

In the mesa, there are plenty of these kinds of rocks to choose from, and it appears as though they have a very high silicon content. Silicon, Grotzinger said, is a good bet for finding signs of past life – and the water-worn mesas may contain crevices that harbor the remains of early microbes.

As the rover trundles up the slope to Murray Buttes, geologists are also keen to use the rover to examine each layer of sediment that became rock. The angle of the slope means that much more of Mars' complex geological history is going to be available for study.

"The Murray Buttes formation is actually 200 meters thick and the Yellowknife Bay formation was only five meters thick," said Kathryn Stack, Curiosity Rover mission scientist at JPL.

"While those couple of meters may represent hundreds of thousands of years of deposition. The Murray formation could potentially have millions to tens of millions of years of Martian history just waiting for us to explore."

The team also reports that Curiosity's damaged wheels are in better shape than expected. The rough Martian regolith has poked holes in four of the rover's six wheels, but after some intensive testing here on Earth to recreate the prangs, boffins reckon the damage is limited and, with some revised driving instructions, the rover is good to go for the foreseeable future.

That said, Curiosity is not going to be moving around as much as it has been. Now that it has reached Mount Sharp, the machine's focus will be on "less driving and more drilling," said Grotzinger. ®

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