Malin Space Science Systems/JPL-Caltech/NASA/REUTERS
A NASA handout photo shows the three left wheels of NASA's Mars rover Curiosity combined in two images that were taken by the rover's Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) on September 9. In the distance is the lower slope of Mount Sharp.

Mars rock hound: Rover Curiosity prepares to head for unique formation

The Mars rover Curiosity is about to head for Glenelg, a unique confluence of rock formations. It's only a quarter-mile away, but the trip could take weeks as the chemistry lab on wheels examines the terrain.

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity has provided a sweeping panorama of its new home in Gale Crater, provided what one researcher calls a dog's-eye view of the rover's underside, and now aims to raise its eyes to the sky to capture the transit of the Martian moon Phobos as it swings across the sun.

All in 37 sols' work for the Mini Cooper-sized chemistry lab on wheels whose mission is to help scientists determine if this patch of the red planet has ever had an environment hospitable to life. (A sol is one day on Mars – 40 minutes longer than on earth.)

So far, the rover has undergone one hardware test after another to ensure all of the instruments are working and the rover's seven-foot long robotic arm works as advertised. That phase comes to an end Friday evening Earth time, when the rover finally strikes out for Glenelg, a unique confluence of rock formations a quarter of a mile away, according to Jennifer Trosper, Curiosity's mission manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

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If Curiosity was to make the trip without rock stops along the way it would reach Glenelg in less than two weeks. But now that engineers are about to share the keys to the rover with the science team, researchers are eager to put tools on the science turret at the end of Curiosity's arm to use along the way.

The first object researchers are hunting for is a hefty chunk of basalt, rock born of volcanic activity and widespread on Mars. The goal is to use ChemCam, a laser-based device for imaging rocks and gathering data on its composition, and an alpha-particle x-ray spectrometer, in tandem to analyze the rock. ChemCam sits atop Curiosity's mast. In addition, the turret's stand-in for a geologist's hand lens also will be brought to bear on the rock.

Once the rover's testing phase ends Thursday, "we will drive until the science team finds that rock," Ms. Trosper says. After a few weeks at the rock, "we will continue to drive to another location, hopefully a sandy location, where we can begin to scoop."

The pause time there could run another few weeks each, she suggests.

The overall verdict on Curiosity's performance to date? "So far, outstanding," Trosper says.

One measure of the progress made in operating rovers on Mars – from Sojourner Truth in the late 1990s to Spirit and Opportunity, and now to Curiosity – is the amount of time consumed by days where the teams didn't meet their objectives. With Sojourner Truth, the first rover to land on Mars, one day out of three was lost to glitches of one kind or another, she says. With the long-lived rovers Spirit and Opportunity, the number fell to one day out of 10. With Curiosity, so far it's one day out of 36.

That may bode well for future rover missions. Aside from the science it performs, Curiosity also is designed to serve as a platform for future long-distance rover missions, where only the instruments change to meet a new mission's science objectives. NASA Mars program officials have said that while it's possible to envision missions that would require a rover smaller than Curiosity, they don't foresee a need for a rover larger than Curiosity.

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