NASA plans a first test-drive of its Mars rover Curiosity for next Tuesday, the start of a year-long trek to the foothills of a nearby Martian mountain.
Some 5 miles away from Curiosity's Aug. 6 landing site, the canyons and buttes of Mount Sharp beckon the $2.5 billion rover. Curiosity is halfway through tests of its 10 science instruments and has completed an "intellect upgrade" of its steering computers, says mission engineer Jim Donaldson of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif.
"I think it's fair to say that our science team, and our rover drivers, really everybody, is kind of itching to move," says mission scientist Ashwin Vasavada of the JPL. The rover now rests on gravel-covered bedrock inside Gale Crater, a 96-mile-wide dent in the Martian surface with Mount Sharp in its center, separated from the rover by a pair of broad sand dunes.
"This is pretty spectacular terrain," Vasavada said Tuesday at a briefing. "We don't see many vistas like this on Earth."
On a two-year mission, the rover will investigate the habitability of the Red Planet, looking for chemistry that might suggest Mars once could have supported life. Although the rover will sample a few rocks on the way, its real target is the foothills of Mount Sharp. The mountain is believed to be made of clay topped by a layer of sulfur-laced rock similar to deposits that NASA's still-working Opportunity rover found in 2004 on another part of Mars.
First though, the rover will have to start rolling across Gale Crater. Mission engineers will activate its six wheels this weekend for a tentative test drive on or around Tuesday, its 15th Martian day, or "Sol."
The test drive will likely cover only a few yards and then back up, says mission planner Michael Watkins of the JPL. The rover should travel about a football field's length a day as it heads for Mount Sharp.
Engineers are debating six paths to pass through sand dunes on the way to Mount Sharp. The rover will need to climb only part of the mountain to perform investigations with instruments that include a drill, laser and chemistry lab.
"We're trying to just keep our eye on the prize, finish these check-outs and get going," Vasavada says.