Mars Rover's Search For Life-friendly Habitats Heads To Mountain

By Reuters
June 06, 2013
Credit: NASA/JPL

NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity is on the road toward Mount Sharp, the primary target of a planned two-year mission to search for habitats that could have supported life, officials said on Wednesday.

Ten months ago the rover landed inside a giant impact basin near the planet’s equator, a site selected because of the 3-mile-high (5-km-high) mound of layered rock rising from the crater floor.

Instead of heading directly to Mount Sharp, scientists wanted to explore an area in the opposite direction where images from orbit showed three different types of rocks coming together.

Curiosity drilled out a sample from a slab of bedrock and immediately hit pay dirt. The analysis showed it contained six elements needed for microbial life - hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur and phosphorus - plus water that had not been too acidic or too salty.

After a month’s hiatus due to a communications blockage by the sun, Curiosity last month drove about nine feet (2.7 meters) and drilled into a second mudstone. Analysis of that sample is pending, deputy project scientist Joy Crisp from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, told reporters on a conference call on Wednesday.

On Monday, scientists sent commands for the rover to turn around and begin driving toward the base of Mount Sharp, located about five miles (eight km) southwest of its present position.

It will be a slow and circuitous journey. At least three stops for science studies are planned, including measurements to determine how much drier the region gets as Curiosity moves away from the low-lying Yellowknife Bay where it conducted its early investigations.

“We’re going to keep our eyes open as we drive and if we in fact drive past something that’s amazing, we might actually turn around and go back and check it out, but there’s nothing that we see from orbit that’s like some super-compelling clue to life or something like that,” Crisp said.

“What we have is a real desire to get to Mount Sharp,” she added.

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