The long and winding road

Since Curiosity landed on Mars five weeks ago, all eyes have been fixed on the robotic probe to see what it could reveal about the mythical red giant.

After an intensive few weeks spent meticulously checking instruments and machinery, the Mars rover Curiosity is to begin a slow and steady drive across the red planet’s surface to report back clues as to whether the planet has ever been hospitable to life, seeking out sites where water may once have been as well as places where microbiological organisms may be preserved. Life on Mars, indeed.

It may be Mars’ first ever tourist, but since its landing on August 6th in Gale Crater, a huge basin which was formed when a meteor hit the planet, about 3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago, Curiosity hasn’t had much chance as yet to see the sights. For the past five weeks, NASA experts have been performing rigorous system check-ups and equipment calibration before the robotic giant (which stands at ten feet tall) embarks on the next part of its journey: his first road trip.

First stop: Glenelg, an area a mere 400 metres away where three different types of rock are thought to meet. Along the way, Curiosity will get its first chance to impress its fans with some of its high-tech tools, as it will use its robotic arm, complete with hand lens and X-Ray spectrometer, to analyse the chemical elements present in the surrounding rock. Curiosity will also stop off to do a spot of gardening…of sorts. If suitable soil can be found, scientists wish to take a sample onto Curiosity’s on-board chemistry analysis laboratory.

In the next few days, the robot will be tracking and documenting the passage of Phobos and Deimos, Mars’ two moons, as they pass across the face of the Sun. Using its extensive camera system, Curiosity will video-record the biannual spectacle and transmit its footage back to Earth.

Each of these tasks will take time, and as such the rover estimated arrival date at Glenelg is predicted to be a month away. The six-wheeled, $2.5 billion rover’s mission is set to last two years, over which it will drive 7 kilometres from its landing site, searching for organic compounds and other components necessary for life on Mars. Drive on, then!

Sources include: BBC, The Telegraph, The Guardian

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