A hero's journey is never easy. Mars rover Curiosity is readying to begin the next part of its journey, leaving behind its rat-shaped rock friend.
Curiosity is currently finishing a six-month investigation of a Mars plot smaller than a football field, the first destination in its mission. In September, the rover snapped a photo of a rock there that looked shaped suspiciously like a rat. The picture went viral – Curiosity, it seemed, had found a pal in an otherwise lonely world.
Alone again, Curiosity will now chug five miles to the base Mount Sharp, searching there and along the way for evidence that will tell us more about the ancient Martian environment and possibilities for life there. Images of Mount Sharp taken from orbit and pictures that Curiosity has taken from a distance have already revealed potential points of interest to scientists on Curiosity's route.
"We're hitting full stride," said Mars Science Laboratory Project Manager Jim Erickson of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., in a press release. “This truly is a mission of exploration, so just because our end goal is Mount Sharp doesn't mean we're not going to investigate interesting features along the way.”
Curiosity has already brought major scientific boons to scientists back home. Analysis of the first rock drilled on Mars, named "John Klein" in honor of a mission team member who died in 2011, suggested that the ancient environment at Gale Crater had the requisite conditions for microbial life, like ponded water. Scientists are now analyzing results from "Cumberland," the second drilling target, to verify the results from John Klein.
Before leaving the current plot — called Glenelg, a palindrome that pays homage to the return journey that Curiosity will make through the area — the Red Planet rover will observe three last targets: the boundary between bedrock areas of mudstone and sandstone, a layered outcrop called "Shaler," and a pitted outcrop called "Point Lake."
No testing will be done on Curiosity’s rat-rock.