The 1-ton rover touched down inside an ancient impact basin in
August 2012. It quickly discovered a region inside the Gale Crater
landing site that was chemically and geologically suited for the
same kind of rock-eating microbes commonly found on Earth.
With the primary goal of the mission met, scientists set about the
more daunting task of finding environmental niches that not only
could have hosted life, but also preserved signs of its existence -
a tricky prospect since the same processes that make rock tend to
destroy organic carbon.
Scientists figured their best chance for success lay inside rocks on
Mount Sharp, a 3-mile (5-km) high mountain rising from the center of
After 18 months of driving, scientists on Thursday announced that
Curiosity had arrived at the base of Mount Sharp ahead of schedule,
thanks to a somewhat serendipitous decision to take an alternative
path that would be gentler on the rover’s damaged wheels.
Within two weeks, Curiosity will reach an outcrop of rock called
Pahrump Hills, where the first drill samples of Mount Sharp real
estate will be made, California Institute of Technology geologist
John Grotzinger told reporters on a conference call on Thursday.
Scientists previously expected to cross the boundary between the
cratered plains of Gale Crater and the relatively smooth rocks of
Mount Sharp in a region called Murray Buttes.
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“Curiously, because of the wheel damage it drove us on a pathway
further south to be safer to the wheels and once we got to the
location ... we recognized that in fact this was an even better
place to go across the boundary than it would be to keep traveling
toward Murray Buttes,” Grotzinger said.
The decision to stop driving and start drilling should please a NASA
oversight panel that earlier this month criticized the Curiosity
team for short-changing the mission’s science goals.
“When the senior review proposal was written in February and March
the base of Mount Sharp looked kilometers away. In reality, we
really cut out some of the drive time ... We’re going to be starting
to do much more science along the way,” said Jim Green, director of
NASA’s planetary science division.
(Editing by David Adams and Bill Trott)
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