Mars rover Curiosity heads for the hills

A team of NASA scientists is planning to steer Curiosity to a soil-rich mound that might answer questions about life on Mars. We look at the rover's to-do list in the days and weeks ahead.
A portion of the first colour 360-degree panorama from NASA's Curiosity rover, made up of thumbnails, which are small copies of higher-resolution images. The rover's destination, a mountain at the centre of the Gale crater called Mount Sharp, can be seen in the distance to the left. Blast marks from the rover's descent stage are in the foreground. The image was released at NASA's latest mission briefing Thursday. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

It might not be Everest but Curiosity has a heck of a big hill to climb once it gets itself all checked out. 

As part of the Mars rover's mission in the months ahead, NASA is eyeing the mountain that Curiosity snapped a picture of after landing Sunday.

"It's a five-kilometre-high mound. So it's pretty high," said NASA's chief Mars scientist David Beaty. "I think it's fair enough to call it a mountain."

The rover is a central part of a $2.6-billion mission that will determine whether the Red Planet has or had the conditions necessary to support life.

But NASA said it will take at least six months before Curiosity even begins its climb up that mountain. Here's a look at the long journey ahead for the rover.

Weeks 1-2

Curiosity won't start hunting through the Martian red dust during these first initial weeks after landing.

Instead, engineers will be working to ensure that its tools are functioning properly after its complex landing in this new environment.

Part of Curiosity's apparatus is seen on the rocky surface of Mars, with dunes on the horizon in this newly released image from NASA. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

"It's one thing to get it down to the surface. But we now have to confirm that all the components are working," said Beaty.

NASA, which measures the mission by Martian days, or sols, has dedicated at least the first 10 sols to making sure that all Curiosity's critical parts are working properly and to making any fixes if necessary.

So far, Curiosity has shown itself to be in good shape, although NASA did have some trouble with the rover's communication antennas. That problem was resolved before the third sol began.

During this time NASA would also like to take the rover for a drive.

"And it's likely to be a small drive, like one or two metres," Beaty said, "Again it's likely to be a check-out thing. Are the wheel motors working correctly? Can the system be controlled properly?"

The testing won't stop NASA from taking pictures from any of the rover's 10 cameras.

Already, Curiosity has beamed back images of the Martian soil beneath its body, a landscape shot of the terrain in front of it and, most recently, a panoramic shot of the Gale Crater from one of the navigational cameras on its mast.

These pictures are being used by NASA scientists not only to test equipment but to start building a geological map of the area.

"You get a city map when you go to a big city," said John Spray, a planetary scientist and crater specialist who's working on the mission. "We're doing the same thing."

Spray was one of the Canadian scientists from University of New Brunswick who helped develop the alpha particle X-ray spectrometer, and he says it's critical for vehicle safety that scientists use this time to make a map of the area so that they understand what soil, rocks or even gullies stand in Curiosity's way.

Knowing what rocks are sitting directly in Curiosity's path is also useful for those geologists who are hungry to sink tools, like the APXS, into the perfect rock.

"Now we are basically trying to understand the geological context of the rover so we can plan the coming sols," Spray said.

Weeks 3-4

After the initial testing period has been completed, engineers will hand over Curiosity's keys and the scientists will take over the driver's seat.

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That is when the mission will get to use Curiosity's tools to do science, instead of testing.

That's also where Canada's main contribution, the APXS, and other tools will come in. The APXS will be able to analyze the chemical composition of rock and soil and this will either confirm or challenge current interpretations about the Red Planet.

So far, much of what scientists know about Mars has been based largely on speculation and theory. 

"We can speculate from orbiters but to actually have the sample is another story," said Spray.

With the APXS and the other instruments aboard Curiosity, NASA will actually be able to get a chemical sample of the rocks, and that will help scientists determine the planet's precise geological composition.

6 months into the mission

Fast-forward six months, after a couple of stops along the way, and Curiosity should begin climbing what NASA calls Mount Sharp.

The plan is to make it half-way up the mountain and analyze the different rocks and soil sections, which NASA expects will reveal much about the evolution of the planet.

That's because Mount Sharp appears to be composed of layers upon layers of sedimentary rock that were laid down in different periods.

"The beauty of sedimentary rock is that every layer is like a page of a book," Beaty said. "And as you go from one stratigraphic section to the other you get an evolution in time that's absolutely unambiguous."

NASA's orbital instruments have already indicated substances such as clay that form in the presence of water exist on this mountain.

"So the history of how and why Mars lost its water is probably recorded in this stratigraphic section," Beaty said.

NASA expects this trip up Mount Sharp will likely occupy the remainder of the Mars mission. However, once completed it won't be the end of the rover.

"If the rover is still healthy we will keep right on going," Beaty said. "It might survive a time longer than two Mars years and we may be able to drive much further up that hill side than we thought."