Road trip on tap for NASA's Mars rover in new year
Curiosity joined another NASA rover, Opportunity, which has been exploring the Martian southern hemisphere since 2004. Opportunity's twin, Spirit, stopped communicating in 2010.
After nailing the landing, Curiosity fell into a routine. The first month was dominated by health checkups — a tedious but essential prerequisite before driving. A chemistry laboratory on wheels, it's the most high-tech spacecraft to land on another planet so extra care was taken to ensure its tools, including its rock-zapping laser and robotic arm, worked.
Once it got the green light, it trundled to a waypoint that's home to three unique types of terrain to perform science experiments. Every time Curiosity roves, it leaves Morse code tracks in the soil, providing a visual signal between drives. The message spells out JPL, short for Jet Propulsion Lab, which built the rover.
So far, its odometer has logged less than a mile. Despite the slow going, scientists have been smitten with the postcards it beamed home, including a stylish self-portrait and tantalizing glimpses of Mount Sharp.
Huge expectations weigh on the mission with NASA balancing the need to feed the public's appetite while pursuing discoveries at its own pace. Last month, the space agency quashed Internet speculation that Curiosity had detected complex carbon compounds in a pinch of Martian soil by issuing a statement ahead of a science meeting where the team was due to present the latest findings.
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.
"It is interesting, but slow," he said in an email. "I expect public interest will rise as the rover gets closer to its destination."
Curiosity's prime mission lasts two years, but NASA expects the plutonium-powered rover to live far longer. A priority for its human handlers is to learn to operate it more efficiently so that it becomes second nature. Before heading to Mount Sharp, engineers plan a software update to Curiosity's computers to fix remaining bugs.
"We'll need to be pretty careful," project manager Richard Cook said of the upcoming drive. "We may find terrain that we're not comfortable driving in and we'll have to spend time driving around stuff."
Follow Alicia Chang at http://twitter.com/SciWriAlicia
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