After longest drive, NASA's Mars rover finds spot to study

Curiosity rover expected to make its first science stop on trip to Mount Sharp

After its longest one-day drive yet, NASA's Mars rover Curiosity is set for the first investigation during what could be a year-long journey.

On Sept. 5, the plutonium-powered robotic rover drove 464 feet, the longest drive in its 13 months working on Mars.

In July, Curiosity began an approximately six-mile journey to the base of Mount Sharp, the goal of the rover's two-year mission. Prior to that, the rover had spent more than six months taking soil samples and drilling its first rocks in an area near its landing site.

Curiosity is now headed out on what will be one of the longest journeys ever for a rover on another planet.

The project could be trip could be completed in eight to 10 months though expect that timeframe to lengthen as they find interesting spots for Curiosity to stop and examine.

NASA reported Tuesday that the rover has found its first place to explore.

The rover's long drive on Sept. 5 brought it to the top of a rise scientists dubbed Panorama Point. From there, it photographed a pale-toned rock outcrop, which has been named Waypoint 1.

The space agency is now studying which rock or rocks should be drilled to gather samples. They hope to compare the chemical makeup of the rocks found on the journey with those studied near the landing site, known as Yellowknife Bay.

"We want to know how the rocks at Yellowknife Bay are related to what we'll see at Mount Sharp," said the mission's project scientist, John Grotzinger, in a statement. "That's what we intend to get from the waypoints between them. We'll use them to stitch together a timeline -- which layers are older, which are younger."

As of Sept. 9, the rocks being considered for the next drill were still about 245 feet from the rover's position.

NASA did not say when Curiosity should reach Waypoint 1.

Curiosity was able to make a long drive on Sept. 5 because NASA programmers added new software that lets the rover navigate more on its own.

During most of its time on Mars, Curiosity has taken photos that were sent back to NASA on a near daily basis. Scientists used the images to plot Curiosity's drive for the next day, maneuvering it around rocks, holes or soft sand where it could get stuck.

However, thanks to the auto-navigation software, the robot is now better able to make its own decisions about whether its safe to drive on and what obstacles it needs to avoid. Without the need to continually stop and check in with scientists on Earth, Curiosity can take longer drives - sometimes double its past limits.

Curiosity is on a two-year mission to help scientists determine whether Mars has, or ever has been able to sustain life, even if in microbial form.

In its first year on Mars, the rover has been driving across Mars' rocky and sandy surface, taking 36,700 full-size images and 35,000 thumbnail images, firing more than 75,000 laser shots, measuring the atmosphere, and scooping and analyzing Mars soil. It also became the first rover to drill into a rock on a planet other than Earth.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

Read more about emerging technologies in Computerworld's Emerging Technologies Topic Center.

This story, "After longest drive, NASA's Mars rover finds spot to study" was originally published by Computerworld.

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