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Curiosity rover to head to mystery spot, touch first Martian rock

September 12, 2012|By Amina Khan | Los Angeles Times
  • This view of the three left wheels of NASA's Mars rover Curiosity combines two images that were taken by the rover's Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) during the 34th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity's work on Mars.
This view of the three left wheels of NASA's Mars rover Curiosity combines… (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin…)

The Mars Curiosity rover is just a day away from hitting the road for its first Martian rock, once it wraps up a suite of tests on its 7-foot-long robotic arm, NASA officials said Wednesday.

Engineers at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge have been running tests since the Mars Science Laboratory rover, which landed Aug. 5, took a pit stop about 82 meters away from its landing site on Sept. 5. It’s headed to Glenelg Intrigue – a spot that caught scientists' eyes because three different types of terrain meet there.

Mission scientists weren’t yet ready to say exactly why Glenelg is so interesting – just that the mix of terrain looks like it might have an interesting geological story, and that it may provide the rover’s first potential drill target.

"Stay tuned," said deputy project scientist Joy Crisp, "but at this time we're still kicking around a lot of different hypotheses, and we just really don't want to stick our necks out yet."

In the meantime, don't hit "refresh" on the NASA site every minute: The rover drives about 40 meters on the days that it moves, and Glenelg is 400 meters away. Ultimately, it will probably be more than a month before Curiosity uses the drill at the end of its arm to bore into a Martian rock, said mission manager Jennifer Trosper.

Before they reach Glenelg, however, the mission team members hope to use the rover’s mast camera to capture Mars’ moons, Phobos and Deimos, silhouetted against the sun – something that happens just once per Earth year, making the event a rare opportunity in the 2-year primary mission.

Curiosity's ultimate target, however, is Mt. Sharp – a 3-mile-high mound in the middle of Gale Crater whose sedimentary layers may reveal whether the Red Planet was ever hospitable to life.

Follow me on Twitter @aminawrite.

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