After 10 months of exploration on the Red Planet's plains, NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity now begins its months-long journey to the mountains in search of habitats that could be suitable for microbial life.
Curiosity has finished investigations in a plains area smaller than a football field and is now set to shift its workplace to “Mount Sharp,” an area about 5 miles (8 kilometers) away, NASA said in a statement.
According to the space agency, there’s no plan for additional rock drilling or soil scooping in the “Glenelg,” the area where Curiosity entered after landing on the Martian surface last August.
NASA said the rover drove east about a third of a mile (500 meters) from the landing site to reach “Glenelg,” and it will have to drive southwest for many months to reach its next destination, “Mount Sharp.”
"We don't know when we'll get to Mount Sharp," Jim Erickson, Mars Science Laboratory project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said. "This truly is a mission of exploration, so just because our end goal is Mount Sharp does not mean we are not going to investigate interesting features along the way."
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According to deputy project scientist Joy Crisp from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the journey to Mount Sharp will be a long one.
"We're going to keep our eyes open as we drive, and if we in fact drive past something that's amazing, we might actually turn around and go back and check it out, but there's nothing that we see from orbit that's like some super-compelling clue to life or something like that," Crisp said.
"What we have is a real desire to get to Mount Sharp.”
With Mount Sharp considered the “biggest turning point since landing” the Curiosity, NASA hopes that investigations there will unearth new evidence of life-friendly habitats on Mars. From the images of Mount Sharp taken from orbit and images Curiosity has taken from a distance, scientists have figured out many layers in the area, which may offer significant information on how the ancient Martian environment changed and evolved.
Scientists said the Mars Science Laboratory mission has already accomplished its main science objective. Analysis of rock powder from the first drilled rock target, "John Klein," provided evidence that an ancient environment in Gale Crater had favorable conditions for microbial life -- the essential elemental ingredients, energy and ponded water that was neither too acidic nor too briny.