Now two years into its exploration of Mars, NASA's beefy rover has reached the base of the huge mound that scientists hope will reveal the Red Planet's history.
Soon after NASA's Mars Science Laboratory, a.k.a. the Curiosity rover, descended to the floor of Gale crater two years ago, it returned panoramas showing a towering mountain nearby that is the mission's ultimate destination. Nicknamed "Mount Sharp" by the mission team (but formally known as Aeolis Mons), the massive mound is a stack of sedimentary layers that have been laid down over billions of years of Martian history.
But like a kid who enters a toy store intent on buying just one must-have game, the mission team has moved the rover here and there — even directing it away from the mountain for a time — to explore all the tantalizing geologic features near its landing site.
Now, finally, the rover has arrived at the mountain's base and, within the next week, begin to climb into a cluster of mounds known as the Pahrump Hills. These lie in the Murray Formation, representing the lowermost slopes of what will be a long climb. The formation is about 200 meters thick, reports Kathryn Stack, the Curiosity rover mission scientist, potentially representing "millions to tens of millions of years of Martian history just waiting for us to explore."
Initially the mission's 400-strong scientific team had planned to spend even more time poking around curious outcrops on the crater's floor. However, there's growing concern about holes and tears in the 0.75-mm-thick aluminum skin covering Curiosity's six wheels. The damage first became obvious about a year ago, but a visual inspection last November showed a huge gash in the left-front wheel. (Sky & Telescope contributing editor Emily Lakdawalla details the wheel damage here.)
Since then, wear and tear on the wheels has been a constant concern, and at a NASA briefing yesterday mission scientist John Grotzinger announced plans to redirect the rover away from the planned route past geologically interesting outcrops called Murray Buttes, and onto a shorter and presumably safer path. Orbital imagery suggests that the Murray Formation displays few impact craters or layers, so it's probably relatively soft ground that will minimize wheel damage.
Thanks to decades of exploration, we already know a great deal about this intriguing neighboring world. Our special issue, "Mars: Mysteries & Marvels of the Red Planet," is loaded with spectacular photos and a must-read for anyone interested in Martian geology, the search for extraterrestrial life, and the future of human colonization of space.
Follow the exploits of Curiosity and other explorations of the Red Planet with Sky & Telescope's colorful, highly detailed Mars globe.