NASA rover Curiosity about to start next phase in Mars exploration

In a few weeks, the robotic rover will begin a 5-mile trek to Mount Sharp

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity is approaching its biggest turning point since landing on the Red Planet last August.

That's the word from NASA scientists, who today said that in a matter of weeks, the robotic rover will turn from the area it has been studying to begin a five-mile trek to the base of Mount Sharp, the longtime goal of Curiosity's mission.

"We've begun to hit full stride in Curiosity's exploration of Mars," said Mars Science Laboratory Project Manager Jim Erickson, during a press conference. "The pace is really picking up now."

However, before Curiosity begins its longest drive yet, it will spend a few more weeks finishing its exploration of the area it's in now, dubbed Glenelg.

To get to Glenelg, the rover's first destination after landing on Mars last August, Curiosity had to drive about one third of a mile.

"We don't know when we'll get to Mount Sharp," Erickson said. "This truly is a mission of exploration, so just because our end goal is Mount Sharp doesn't mean we're not going to investigate interesting features along the way."

Joy Crisp, Curiosity's deputy project scientist added that Curiosity will stop and investigate any interesting areas or rocks that it comes across on its trip to Mount Sharp.

"We'll stop at outcrops and we'll be keeping our eyes open in case it drives past something amazing so we can have it go back and check it out," Crisp said. "We've spent so much time in the Glenelg region that people are getting antsy and want to really drive& And the beacon of Mount Sharp is so enticing that we want to really get started on that."

NASA said images of Mount Sharp taken from orbit, along with images that Curiosity has taken from a distance reveal many areas where scientists hope to finding evidence of how the ancient Martian environment evolved.

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

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

Curiosity also is wrapping up scientific experiments it has been conducting on rock dust it obtained by drilling into a second Martian rock. That drill was only the second time that a rover has drilled into a rock on a planet other than Earth.

While the rover still has the rock dust in its instruments, it will take more measurements in the Glenelg area over the next few weeks . "Before we start our trek to Mount Sharp, we want to follow up on what we've already seen," said Crisp.

For instance, Curiosity will take measurements of some cross-bedded rock that scientists suspect might have been formed by stream deposits. By studying the geometry of the layers, they hope to discover what direction the water was flowing, as well as how deep it was.

While Curiosity is busy taking measurements, NASA scientists will be plotting its route to Mount Sharp, looking for interesting terrain that is not steep enough to cause the rover any trouble.

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