What lures scientists to the mountain is a mineral map, compiled by orbital reconnaissance, showing chemical variations from base to summit. Scientists believe the mineral changes reflect and record transitions in Mars’ environment from a warm and wet past to the cold, dry desert that appears today.
“It’s like looking at layers of the Grand Canyon,” Crisp said.
The older layers of the planet are at the base of Mount Sharp. Rocks at higher elevations contain chemical information about later climates.
“We’re trying to read the record in the rocks to figure out what the environment was like when those rocks were forming,” Crisp added.
Even by the most direct route with minimal stops, Curiosity’s drive to the base of Mount Sharp will take 10 months to a year, said project manager Jim Erickson from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
That doesn’t leave much time for mountain climbing and analysis during the rover’s primary two-year mission, but with its early discoveries at Yellowknife Bay, Curiosity already has answered the key question about whether Mars was suitable for microbial life.
NASA’s other operational Mars rover, Opportunity, which was designed to last three months, has been working for more than nine years.