NASA's Curiosity Mars rover finally makes it to Mount Sharp

After an 18-month drive, NASA's Mars rover is set to begin taking drill samples from an outcrop of rock within the next two weeks.

MSSS/JPL-Caltech/NASA/Reuters
A color mosaic taken by NASA's Mars Curiosity rover Mast Camera (mastcam) shows strata exposed along the margins of the valleys in the "Pahrump Hills" region on Mars in this undated handout photo courtesy of NASA. After 18 months of driving, scientists on September 11, 2014, announced that Curiosity had arrived at the base of Mount Sharp ahead of schedule, thanks to a somewhat serendipitous decision to take an alternative path that would be gentler on the rover's damaged wheels. Within two weeks, Curiosity will reach an outcrop of rock called Pahrump Hills, where the first drill samples of Mount Sharp real estate will be made.

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity has arrived at the base of a mountain of layered rock that scientists suspect holds clues about whether the planet most like Earth in the solar system had the ingredients to support and preserve signs of microbial life.

The 1-ton rover touched down inside an ancient impact basin in August 2012. It quickly discovered a region inside the Gale Crater landing site that was chemically and geologically suited for the same kind of rock-eating microbes commonly found on Earth.

With the primary goal of the mission met, scientists set about the more daunting task of finding environmental niches that not only could have hosted life, but also preserved signs of its existence - a tricky prospect since the same processes that make rock tend to destroy organic carbon.

Scientists figured their best chance for success lay inside rocks on Mount Sharp, a 3-mile high mountain rising from the center of Gale Crater.

After 18 months of driving, scientists on Thursday announced that Curiosity had arrived at the base of Mount Sharp ahead of schedule, thanks to a somewhat serendipitous decision to take an alternative path that would be gentler on the rover's damaged wheels.

Within two weeks, Curiosity will reach an outcrop of rock called Pahrump Hills, where the first drill samples of Mount Sharp real estate will be made, California Institute of Technology geologist John Grotzinger told reporters on a conference call on Thursday.

Scientists previously expected to cross the boundary between the cratered plains of Gale Crater and the relatively smooth rocks of Mount Sharp in a region called Murray Buttes.

"Curiously, because of the wheel damage it drove us on a pathway further south to be safer to the wheels and once we got to the location ... we recognized that in fact this was an even better place to go across the boundary than it would be to keep traveling toward Murray Buttes," Grotzinger said.

The decision to stop driving and start drilling should please a NASA oversight panel that earlier this month criticized the Curiosity team for short-changing the mission's science goals.

"When the senior review proposal was written in February and March the base of Mount Sharp looked kilometers away. In reality, we really cut out some of the drive time ... We're going to be starting to do much more science along the way," said Jim Green, director of NASA's planetary science division.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.