I enjoy dropping in on the Curiosity Rover’s raw image archive to see what’s up. Since NASA’s only updates now once every week or two, I like to know what the rover’s been eyeballing on Mars.
The past couple weeks have seen Curiosity making steady progress toward its ultimate destination, the 3.4-mile-high (5.5 km) Mt. Sharp in the center of Gale Crater. The mountain is really a layer cake of deposits that were laid down in the crater after it was gouged out by an asteroid impact billions of years ago. Likely sources for the deposits are volcanic ash falls, windblown sand and dust and of course silts and sands settled out from ancient lakes and seas. Each layer is a page in the story of Mars’ climate and geological history.
After the longest one-day drive in the mission – 464 feet (141.5 meters) – the rover stopped on a crest with a vista called Panoramic Point on Sept. 8. From there it examined a section of exposed bedrock in detail and photographed its next destination, “Waypoint 1”. This more distant rock outcrop lies one-fifth of the way along the approximately 5.3-mile (8.6-kilometer) route to Mt. Sharp.
Five miles sounds like pleasant morning hike on the trail for you and I, but it’s a journey that will last almost a year for the rover. Hazards along the way include the dark strip of potentially dangerous sand dunes at the base of the mountains. The Spirit Rover got stuck in soft soil in May 2009 and despite mission controllers’ many attempts to free it, it remained trapped until the end. No one wants to see that happen to Curiosity.