NASA's Mars Rover Curiosity Closes in on Ultimate Destination

Robotic rover nears its second year on Mars, closes in on Mount Sharp

As NASA's robotic rover, Curiosity, approaches its second year on Mars, it's also approaching its first good look at its ultimate destination.

Scientists have had their eye on the base of Mount Sharp since Curiosity landed on the Red Planet on Aug. 5, 2012. However, the rover had other work to do -- like finding evidence of ancient river and lake beds -- before beginning its trek to the mountain.

Just two miles from the base of Mount Sharp, the robotic rover is less than a third of a mile away from what NASA says is an outcrop of a base layer of the mountain. The rover team has dubbed the outcrop "Pahrump Hills."

This is a panoramic image of the landscape surrounding the Mars rover Curiosity showing the sandy lower terrain called Hidden Valley. (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Curiosity began its arduous six-mile journey to the mountain in June 2013. NASA scientists have been waiting eagerly for the rover to reach its destination and begin sending back information about the formation of the area's geologic features.

Scientists anticipate being able to see the geology of how Sharp was formed by looking at each layer of its composition. By studying each geological layer, they should be able to get a good idea of what happened to Mars over the past few million years.

The bottom layer, which is the first layer that Curiosity will reach, will be the oldest.

Before crossing the last two miles to the mountain, the rover will stop and investigate this outcropping.

"We're coming to our first taste of a geological unit ...," said Curiosity Project Scientist John Grotzinger, in a statement. "We will cross a major terrain boundary."

For the last few weeks, Curiosity's team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory guided the rover across a treacherous area called Zabriskie Plateau that is littered with sharp rocks.

The rover crossed similar terrain last year that damaged its aluminum wheels. Scientists adjusted the rover's route so avoid as much of the sharp-rocked terrain as possible.

"The wheels took some damage getting across Zabriskie Plateau, but it's less than I expected from the amount of hard, sharp rocks embedded there," said Jim Erickson, Curiosity's project manager. "The rover drivers showed that they're up to the task of getting around the really bad rocks. There will still be rough patches ahead. We didn't imagine prior to landing that we would see this kind of challenge to the vehicle, but we're handling it."

NASA is scheduled to report on Curiosity's accomplishments on Tuesday.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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This story, "NASA's Mars Rover Curiosity Closes in on Ultimate Destination" was originally published by Computerworld.

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