Curiosity Headed To Mount Sharp
December 30, 2012

Curiosity’s Trip To Mount Sharp Expected To Begin In February

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports — Your Universe Online

The Mars rover Curiosity will ring in the new year drilling into its first rock before moving on to the base of Mount Sharp, where its search for carbon-based molecules begins in earnest, NASA officials told the media on Saturday.

First up in 2013, the rover, which spent the holiday measuring the planet's atmosphere, will begin the process of selecting a rock, drilling into it, and then determining what chemicals it is comprised of, said Alicia Chang of the Associated Press.

The entire process is expected to take more than a month to complete, she noted. Afterwards, Curiosity is expected to depart for Mount Sharp, where it will attempt to find "the chemical building blocks of life: complex carbon-based molecules," Chang said.

If the region of the planet where the rover landed was ever capable of supporting microbial life forms, those elements would need to be present, and officials from the US space agency believe Mount Sharp would be the most likely place to find them. However, it could take Curiosity upwards of nine months to reach its destination.

"We'll need to be pretty careful," Richard Cook, Flight Systems Manager of the Mars Exploration Rover Project, told the Associated Press over the weekend. "We may find terrain that we're not comfortable driving in, and we'll have to spend time driving around stuff."

To that end, NASA engineers are also reportedly planning to install software updates to the rover's computer system before it departs. Chang reports these updates will fix bugs in Curiosity's programming.

"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," the AP reporter said. "Huge expectations weigh on the mission with NASA balancing the need to feed the public's appetite while pursuing discoveries at its own pace."

"So far, its odometer has logged less than a mile. Despite the slow going, scientists have been smitten with the postcards it beamed home, including a stylish self-portrait and tantalizing glimpses of Mount Sharp," she added, noting that while "Curiosity's prime mission lasts two years," officials with the US space agency expect "the plutonium-powered rover to live far longer."