Niagara Gazette

Local News

December 30, 2012

Road trip on tap for NASA's Mars rover in new year

(Continued)

Niagara Gazette — Before Curiosity can tackle a mountain, there's unfinished business to tend to. After spending the holiday taking measurements of the Martian atmosphere, Curiosity gears up for the first task of the new year: Finding the perfect rock to bore into.

The exercise — from picking a rock to drilling to deciphering its chemical makeup — is expected to last more than a month.

"We have promised everybody that we're going to go slowly," said Grotzinger, a geologist at the California Institute of Technology.

Curiosity's low-key adventures thus far are in contrast to the drama-filled touchdown that entranced the world in August. Since the car-size rover was too heavy to land using a parachute and airbags, engineers invented a daring new way that involved lowering it to the surface by cables. The risky arrival proved so successful and popular that NASA is planning an encore in 2020.

Curiosity joined another NASA rover, Opportunity, which has been exploring the Martian southern hemisphere since 2004. Opportunity's twin, Spirit, stopped communicating in 2010.

After nailing the landing, Curiosity fell into a routine. The first month was dominated by health checkups — a tedious but essential prerequisite before driving. A chemistry laboratory on wheels, it's the most high-tech spacecraft to land on another planet so extra care was taken to ensure its tools, including its rock-zapping laser and robotic arm, worked.

Once it got the green light, it trundled to a waypoint that's home to three unique types of terrain to perform science experiments. Every time Curiosity roves, it leaves Morse code tracks in the soil, providing a visual signal between drives. The message spells out JPL, short for Jet Propulsion Lab, which built the rover.

So far, its odometer has logged less than a mile. Despite the slow going, scientists have been smitten with the postcards it beamed home, including a stylish self-portrait and tantalizing glimpses of Mount Sharp.

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