Mars rover Curiosity on the road again

NASA robotic vehicle studies Mars' 'complicated' history with water

After a quick stop for some scientific testing, NASA's Mars rover Curiosity is on the move again and heading toward its ultimate destination - Mount Sharp.

Last week, the robotic super vehicle stopped its months-long trek to the base of Mount Sharp to study with instruments on its arm an area scientists hoped might be an ancient watery environment.

"We examined pebbly sandstone deposited by water flowing over the surface, and veins or fractures in the rock," said Dawn Sumner, a Curiosity science team member. "We know the veins are younger than the sandstone because they cut through it, but they appear to be filled with grains like the sandstone."

The area, which NASA has dubbed Waypoint 1, marks the first of five stops slated for Curiosity as it makes its way from Glenelg, where the rover worked for the first half of 2013, to the base of Mount Sharp. Waypoint 1 is about one-fifth of the way along the arduous journey six mile journey.

Depending on the time taken at stop, the Curiosity trek will take seven to 12 months.

Curiosity began the journey on Sunday with a 75-foot journey from Waypoint 1.

NASA scientists say they're eager to compare the geological findings at Glenelg with those at spots along Curiosity's current route to Mount Sharp.

"We want to understand the history of water in Gale Crater," Sumner said in a statement. "Did the water flow that deposited the pebbly sandstone at Waypoint 1 occur at about the same time as the water flow at Yellowknife Bay? If the same fluid flow produced the veins here and the veins at Yellowknife Bay, you would expect the veins to have the same composition. We see that the veins are different, so we know the history is complicated. We use these observations to piece together the long-term history."

The rover spent four days investigating two locations at the same site. Each day, it used both its Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer, which identifies chemical elements, and its Mars Hand Lens Imager, which shows textures, shapes and colors.

"There's a trade-off between wanting to reach Mount Sharp as soon as we can and wanting to chew on rocks all along the way," said Kenneth Williford, a Curiosity science team member. "Our team of more than 450 scientists has set the priority on getting to Mount Sharp, with these few brief waypoint stops."

Curiosity is on a two-year mission to find evidence that Mars does, or has in the past been able to sustain life, even if in microbial form.

In September of 2012, less than two months after landing, Curiosity took a major step in the process when it sent back evidence of a "vigorous" thousand-year water flow on the surface of Mars.

Meanwhile, NASA last week announced that Curiosity has not yet found a trace of methane in the Martian atmosphere, decreasing the odds that there is life on Mars.

The rover has been running tests to search for traces of methane in the Martian atmosphere and, so far, has come up empty.

Some scientists had thought it possible that microbial life exists on Mars today. However, many microbes here on Earth produce methane. NASA will continue to search for types of microbes that don't produce methane.

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.

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This story, "Mars rover Curiosity on the road again" was originally published by Computerworld.

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