by Dr. Ken Kremer
Mars Trek has begun for NASA’s Curiosity rover following the spectacular and pinpoint rocketguided touchdown beside a huge layered mountain inside Gale Crater on the night of August 5/6. Millions of people around the world were eagerly and excitedly following along with NASA’s live broadcast from Mission Control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Pandemonium erupted when confirmation was received that the never before tried and highly complex “skycrane” landing was successfully completed.
The one-ton mega rover has now departed from her touchdown vicinity at “Bradbury Landing” and set off on a multi-week eastwards traverse to her first science target which the team has dubbed “Glenelg”. Glenelg lies about a quarter mile (400 meters) away. The car-sized rover has now driven about ¾ of the way as of late September, nearly two months into the mission, and should arrive at Glenelg sometime in October. The science team selected Glenelg as the first target for detailed investigation because it sits at the intersection of three types of geologic terrain, affording the researchers the chance to get a much more comprehensive look at the diverse geology inside the Gale Crater landing site.Engineers have carefully checked out nearly all of the powerful science instruments, including the first of its kind rock zapping laser. Among other tasks, the Mastcam color camera is collecting high resolution images at points along the way so the scientists can create a 3D map of Mount Sharp, the rover’s ultimate driving destination.
Perhaps in about a year or so, Curiosity will reach the base of Mount Sharp and begin climbing up the side of the 3.6-mile (5.5-km) high mound in search of hydrated minerals that will shed light on the duration of Mars watery past.
The mission goal is to ascertain whether the Red Planet was ever capable of supporting microbial life, past or present and to search for the signs of life in the form of organic molecules during the two-year primary mission phase. Curiosity is equipped with a sophisticated array of 10 state of the art science instruments far beyond any prior rover.
The science team also deployed the 7-ft. (2.1-meter) long robotic arm and tested the science instruments in the turret positioned at the terminus of the arm. Curiosity flexed her mighty robotic arm for the first time on Aug. 20 and aimed the hand-like tool turret squarely at Mount Sharp.
If you want to see exactly where Curiosity is headed and why she was sent to Gale Crater, just take a look at the mosaic assembled by Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo which was selected to appear on Astronomy Picture of the Day on August 27, 2012. Curiosity is pointing with her robotic arm right at Mount Sharp, the huge 18,000-foot (5.5-kilometer) tall mysterious mound that covers the center of the 96-mile (154-km) wide Gale crater. Our Curiosity mosaic was also featured on the front page of NBC News in the link below. Several more of our original Curiosity mosaics showing the rovers traverse appeared at NBC, most recently on Sept. 26 at the link below.
The layered sediments in Mount Sharp could unveil the geologic history of Mars stretching back billions of years and reveal why the planet transitioned from an ancient, wet period of flowing liquid water on the surface to the dry, desiccated era of today.
Astronomy Outreach by Dr. Ken Kremer
Amateur Astronomer’s Inc (AAI) at Union County College: Cranford, NJ, Nov 16, 8 PM, “Curiosity and the Search for Life on Mars (in 3-D)”.
AAI Website: http://www.asterism.org
STAR Astronomy Club at Monmouth Museum, Brookdale Community College, Lincroft, NJ. Dec 6, 8 PM. “Atlantis, the Premature End of NASA’s Shuttle Program and What’s Beyond for NASA.”
Ken Kremer: Spaceflight magazine & Universe Today