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Curiosity preps for road trip

2012-12-31 12:57

ON THE ROAD AGAIN: NASA's Mars Curiosity rover will embark on an important journey in February 2013.

ALICIA CHANG

Since captivating the world with its acrobatic landing, the Mars rover Curiosity has fallen into a rhythm: Drive, take pictures, zap at boulders, scoop up dirt. Repeat.

On its to-do list in the new year is to set off toward a Martian mountain - a trek that will take up a good chunk of the year.

Curiosity will head for Mount Sharp in mid-February 2013 after it drills into its first rock.

BIG EXPECTATIONS

Mission chief scientist John Grotzinger said: "We'll probably be ready to put the pedal to the metal and give the keys back to the rover drivers.”

The road trip comes amid great expectations. After all, it's the reason the mission targeted Gale Crater near the Martian equator. Soaring from the centre of the ancient crater is a 4.82km-high peak with intriguing layers of rocks.

Curiosity's job is to figure out whether the landing site ever had the right environmental conditions to support microbes. Scientists already know water flowed in the past thanks to the rover's discovery of an old streambed. Besides water, life as we know it also needs energy, the sun.

It's a six-month journey if Curiosity drives nonstop but since scientists will want to command the six-wheel rover to rest and examine rocky outcrops along the way, it'll turn into a nine-month odyssey.

Curiosity's low-key adventures thus far are in contrast to the drama-filled touchdown that entranced the world in August.

American University space policy professor Howard McCurdy said Curiosity is currently in a transition, caught between the viral landing and the scientific payoff expected at Mount Sharp.

McCurdy said: "It is interesting, but slow. I expect public interest will rise as the rover gets closer to its destination."


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