Sun, Aug 19, 2012 - Page 7 News List

Mars rover takes ‘cool’ detour: NASA

BOLDLY GOING:The nuclear-powered, car-sized Curiosity vehicle is exploring the Red Planet and is seeking to establish if microbial life could survive its harsh world

AP, LOS ANGELES

The NASA Mars-roving craft Curiosity was last night preparing for its first laser target practice — aiming to zap a Martian rock 3m away.

Since landing in an ancient crater on Aug. 5, the car-size Curiosity has been getting a full health checkup. Scientists said on Friday they have chosen a generic-looking rock near the landing site to aim the laser at and burn a small hole.

The laser is one of 10 tools Curiosity is to use to study whether the environment is favorable for microbial life.

Engineers next week plan to command Curiosity to turn its wheels side-to-side and then take its first short drive that will involve rolling forward 3m, turning 90 degrees and then going in reverse.

Later, scientists at the US space agency said, the vehicle is set to make a wide detour to explore a geographical hot spot on Mars because “it looks cool.” Before driving to its destination at Mount Sharp, which may contain traces of water, Curiosity is to head in the opposite direction, to a spot NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has dubbed Glenelg. In a statement, the Pasadena lab said Glenelg marks the intersection of three kinds of terrain 500m from the rover’s landing site.

A light-colored patch of terrain in the region indicates to scientists “a kind of bedrock suitable for eventual drilling by Curiosity.”

A cluster of small craters may represent “an older or harder surface” and another spot features a patch of land resembling the rover’s landing site, before the nuclear-powered apparatus “scoured away some of the surface.”

The scientists feel the name Glenelg is “appropriate,” because it is a palindrome — a word read the same way backward and forward — and the rover will need to travel back in the same direction to head toward Mount Sharp. The Glenelg trek will be the rover’s first long drive, Mars Science Laboratory project scientist John Grotzinger said.

Grotzinger estimates it will take three to four weeks for the rover to arrive at Glenelg, where the rover would stay for roughly a month, before heading to the base of Mount Sharp. Analysts have said it may be a full year before the remote-controlled rover gets to the base of the peak, which is believed to be within 20km of the rover’s landing site.

A photo of the lower reaches of Mount Sharp, taken from Curiosity’s landing site, shows “hills, buttes, mesas and canyons on the scale of one-to-three-story buildings.”

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