LOS ANGELES, Calif. – Mount Sharp has beckoned Curiosity since the NASA rover arrived on Mars exactly a year ago.
If microbes ever existed on Mars, the mountain represents the best hope for preserving the chemical ingredients that are fundamental to all living things.
Curiosity recently pointed its wheels south, rolling toward the base of Mount Sharp in a journey that will last many months. It will drive across the rock-strewn landscape, dodging bumps and taking in the scenery.
“We do a lot of off-roading on a lot of little dirt roads,” said mission manager Jennifer Trosper.
Scientists have been eager for a peek of Mount Sharp since Curiosity, the size of a small SUV, touched down in an ancient crater near the Martian equator on the night of Aug. 5, 2012.
The world wondered whether Curiosity would nail its landing, which involved an acrobatic plunge through the thin atmosphere that ended with it being gently lowered to the ground with cables.
Curiosity became a pop sensation.
Once the euphoria of landing wore off, the six-wheel, nuclear-powered rover went to work, spending two months testing its instruments and systems.
To celebrate the landing anniversary, engineers commanded one of Curiosity’s instruments to play “Happy Birthday” as the rover took a break from driving.
Scientists initially hoped to head to Mount Sharp late last year, but decided to take a detour to an intriguing spot near the landing site where three different types of terrain intersected.
Curiosity discovered rounded pebbles — clear evidence of an ancient streambed. It also fulfilled one of the mission’s main goals. By drilling into a rock and analyzing its chemistry, Curiosity concluded that Gale Crater possessed the right environmental conditions to support primitive life. It’s not equipped to look for microbes, living or extinct.
With Curiosity busy studying rocks and dirt, the start date for the mountain trek kept getting pushed back.
Now that it’s finally on the move, scientists hope to keep stops to a minimum. Along the way, Curiosity will take pictures, check the weather, track radiation and fire its laser at rocks.
Curiosity was such a smash that NASA is preparing for an encore performance in 2021 using the same landing technology. Budget willing, the next rover will be able to collect rocks and store them on the Martian surface for a possible future mission to pick up and ferry back to Earth.