After two short trips since the Fourth of July, NASA's Mars rover Curiosity has begun a journey that could take as long as a year to reach the ultimate destination for its mission -- Mount Sharp.
The nuclear-powered super rover drove on July 4 and July 7 in what were the first two legs of an approximately six-mile trip to the base of Mount Sharp, the longtime goal of Curiosity's two-year exploratory mission.
Before this trek began, Curiosity had only driven about a third of a mile since it landed on the surface of Mars in August 2012. Its latest journey is one of the longest any rover has ever made on Mars. Curiosity's predecessor, the Mars rover Opportunity made the longest trek yet, a 13-mile trip that took 1,000 days to complete.
NASA reported that after completing an investigation at a sedimentary outcrop in an area scientists dubbed Glenelg on July 4, Curiosity drove 59 feet toward Mount Sharp. Then on July 7, a second short trip added another 131 feet to its journey tally.
Mount Sharp, which sits in the middle of Gale Crater where Curiosity landed, is of particular interest to NASA scientists since it exposes many soil and rock layers, the space agency said on its site.
Curiosity isn't expected to climb to the top of Mount Sharp, though it will drive up a portion of it, to investigate as many geological layers as possible.
Researchers hope to find on Mount Sharp evidence of how the ancient Martian environment evolved.
While in the Glenelg area, the robotic rover sent back evidence of an ancient wet environment that may have been able to support life in microbial form.
With that one finding, Curiosity already has accomplished its main science objective.
During the rover's current trek, the biggest danger for Curiosity is running into deep, soft sand where it could get stuck. More than three years ago, NASA was forced to abandon its Mars rover Spirit, after it became stuck in soft sand, ending its six years of work on the Martian surface.
NASA's rover Curiosity photographed the tracks it left on the Martian surface as it began a major journey to Mount Sharp. (Photo: NASA)
Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is [email protected].