The Mars rover, Curiosity has done it!
After a 33.5 million-mile journey to the Red Planet, 25 months trekking its alien deserts, and an exploratory detour to a canyon called Yellowknife Bay, the Curiosity has finally arrived at the foot of Mt. Sharp.
In January of 2014 it was announced that the rover’s mission would evolve from profiling rocks and soils for evidence of water on the planet’s surface, to drilling for signs of ancient life. Mt. Sharp, named for the field of jagged rocks around its base, was chosen as the rover’s primary destination, specifically a lower, clay-rich region of the mountain called the Murry Formation. The NASA intelligence team responsible for the mission has determined that the 200-meter thick sedimentary deposits in the Murry Formation could potentially hold tens of millions of years of Martian history including that of any habitable environments the planet may have supported.
Not everyone at NASA agrees on the merits of the new mission’s destination, however, The Planetary Senior Review panel is concerned that any results from the Mt. Sharp mission will be “a poor science return for such a large investment in a flagship mission.” As the rough terrain on the planet’s surface has already caused an alarming amount of damage to the rover’s wheels, the panel advised the team to “drive less and drill more.” Since the Curiosity has already arrived at the mountain, they plan to continue on as scheduled and should begin drilling in about two weeks.
You may recall that the Curiosity was not alone when the mission began in 2003. Two other rovers, the Spirit and Opportunity, were sent with the Curiosity to explore the planet as a group. After surviving a number of bumps, bruises and a few savage dust storms that damaged the rovers’ solar panels, the Spirit became stuck in a patch of soft soil in May of 2009. Unable to free the thin wheels, NASA re-tasked the Spirit as a stationary science platform, but they eventually lost complete contact with it in March of 2010.
Though separated geologically, the Opportunity continues to search the Martian waste for evidence of ancient life in tandem with the Curiosity. For their significant contributions to science, two asteroids have been named after the Spirit and Opportunity, and in the next few months it is possible that discoveries at Mt. Sharp will merit the Curiosity his very own monument in the sky.
Photo Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo