Aug 17, 2012

Where Will Curiosity Go First?

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August 17, 2012:  By now it's old news that NASA's new Mars rover Curiosity is resting safely on the surface of Red Planet after a daredevil landing that had the nation holding its breath. Now, mission scientists are anxious to start moving. With such a sweet set of wheels at their disposal and the "open road" before them, just where will they go first?

"We won't have to travel far for excitement," says project scientist John Grotzinger. "We landed in the best possible place within the landing ellipse -- the bottom of an alluvial fan."

Where Will Curiosity Go First? (splash)
A new ScienceCast video explores the places Curiosity might go. Play it

An alluvial fan is a pattern of sedimentary rocks, dirt, and sand deposited by flowing water – in this case, perhaps an ancient Martian river. Since life as we know it requires liquid water, this is an excellent first place to search for clues of a Mars that was once hospitable to life.

"The alluvial fan indicates that water flowed across the surface, so we'll head downhill to where water might have collected. We'll be looking for minerals like salts that might tell us where water has been. It's kind of like a scavenger hunt with minerals as clues."

Where Will Curiosity Go First? (whereto2, 200px)
This image shows destinations scientists want the rover to investigate. First, Curiosity will move toward an area nicknamed Glenelg where three kinds of terrain intersect. The science team thought the name Glenelg was appropriate because, if Curiosity traveled there, it would visit it twice -- both coming and going -- and the word Glenelg is a palindrome. Then, Curiosity will aim for the base of Mt. Sharp where a natural break in the dunes should allow the rover to begin scaling the lower reaches of the mountain. []

After that, Grotzinger says it's "full-speed ahead" to the base of Mount Sharp, a 5000-meter tall mountain that holds within its ancient layers possible clues to life on the Red Planet.

"We'll have to make a deal with ourselves not to stop too often along the way. Mount Sharp is the reason we chose this landing site, so we need to high-tail it on over there."

Deputy Program Manager Richard Cook describes the temptation to stop along the way: "It'll be like taking a family vacation, but instead of the family you have 400 scientists who want to stop and look at every sight."

Curiosity is bristling with instruments custom-made to look for the chemical building blocks of life.

A laser on Curiosity's mast can take aim at interesting rocks and vaporize small spots on them from up to 7 meters away. The micro-blasts produce plasma clouds, and the scientists can examine the light reflected off these clouds to learn what the rocks are made of. The mast also sports a high-resolution camera called Mastcam, which has already begun observing and photographing the rover's surroundings.

The rover's robotic arm wields its own array of instruments. The Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer will measure the abundance of chemical elements in the dust, soils, rocks, and samples the rover gathers. The Mars Hand Lens Imager acts like a geologist's magnifying lens that can take its own color photos.

Ultimately samples will be delivered to a pair of onboard laboratory instruments. One of them, SAM, short for Sample Analysis at Mars, will explore the Red Planet by 'sniffing' the air, bird-dog style. It has vents that open to the atmosphere to detect gases like methane. SAM can also 'sniff' the gases released by rock or soil samples it heats in its own oven.

Can 400 scientists gripped by the thrill of the greatest 'family vacation' ever really rush to their destination without stopping to savor every sight?

Grotzinger makes just one guarantee: "In the coming months and years, Curiosity will tell us an incredible story."

Author:  Dauna D. Coulter | Production editor: Dr. Tony Phillips | Credit: Science@NASA

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