NASA’s Curiosity rover is moving onward to her Martian mountain climbing destination, shunning the hoped-for drill campaign at the “Bonanza King” rock outcrop after it was ultimately deemed unsafe as the robot’s potential fourth drill site on the Red Planet.
“Head for the hills!” Curiosity tweeted with glee on Tuesday, Sept. 2.
She’s been eyeing the mammoth mountain ever since her death-defying touchdown on the Red Planet two years ago, on Aug. 6, 2012, inside Gale Crater.
The six-wheeled robot is expected to arrive at the foothills of Mount Sharp before year’s end.
“Getting to Mount Sharp is the next big step for Curiosity and we expect that in the Fall of this year,” Dr. Jim Green, NASA’s Director of Planetary Sciences at NASA Headquarters, Washington, D.C., said in an interview, marking the second anniversary since touchdown.
Why is she so anxious to reach the mountain?
“I’m driving towards these hills on Mars to do geology work & also search for clouds,” Curiosity elaborated.
The lower reaches of Mount Sharp are the rover’s ultimate driving objective because the sedimentary layers are believed to hold caches of water-altered minerals, based on high-resolution mapping measurements obtained by the CRISM spectrometer aboard NASA’s powerful Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) soaring overhead.
Such minerals could possibly indicate locations that sustained potential Martian life forms, past or present, if they ever existed.
Humongous Mount Sharp dominates the center of Gale Crater and towers some 3.4 miles (5.5 km) into the Martian sky.
“Exploring the mountain will be like traveling backwards in a time machine,” Green explained.
However, Curiosity has had to alter her planned traverse route to minimize contact with sharp-edged, wheel-damaging rocks and to escape a potential Martian death trap of slippery sand dunes in a picturesque valley the length of a football field, named “Hidden Valley.”
In fact, Curiosity’s handlers commanded her to quit moving across the sand ripples of “Hidden Valley” and make an about-face to drive away from a potential science drilling destination at the valley’s end, known as “Pahrump Hills.”
Curiosity was forced to exit Hidden Valley at the risk of becoming mired in the slippery sands and suffer a deadly fate, similar to the Spirit rover.
“After further analysis of the sand, Hidden Valley does not appear to be navigable with the desired degree of confidence,” said Curiosity Project Manager Jim Erickson of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., in a statement.
“We will use a route avoiding the worst of the sharp rocks as we drive slightly to the north of Hidden Valley.”
Then, on the up-ramp leading out of Hidden Valley, the team noticed some enticing outcrops at a spot called “Bonanza King” and decided to consider it as a make-up for skipping drilling at “Pahrump Hills.”
“Bonanza King” was quite interesting because the outcrop possessed thin, white, cross-cutting mineral veins which could indicate that liquid water flowed there in the distant past.
Although the initial rock brushing with the Dust Removal Tool (DRT) went well, the rock ultimately failed the hammer test when the rover’s software sensed the outcrop moved and was therefore unstable and not safe for full-depth drilling.
“We have decided that the rocks under consideration for drilling, based on the tests we did, are not good candidates for drilling,” said Erickson.
“Instead of drilling here, we will resume driving toward Mount Sharp.”
Curiosity has departed Hidden Valley and may yet find a suitable drill target.
Indeed, the team reports that she may wind up at the “Pahrump Hills” after all.
“We are working our way towards the bright patch of rocks known as the ‘Pahrump Hills’,” said Curiosity scientist Lauren Edgar in an update yesterday.
It’s really important to drill at several locations on the crater floor before scaling the mountain, in order to establish the true history of this pristine spot on the Red Planet.
“Drilling on the crater floor will provide needed geologic context before Curiosity climbs the mountain,” Green explained.
Curiosity still has about another 2 miles (3 kilometers) to go to reach the entry way at a gap in the potentially treacherous dunes at the foothills of Mount Sharp sometime later this year.
So far, Curiosity’s odometer totals over 5.5 miles (9.0 kilometers) since landing inside Gale Crater on Mars in August 2012. She has taken over 183,000 images during 739 Sols of exploration.
Stay tuned here for continuing updates.
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