Last August, NASA landed Curiosity on the surface of Mars. Now, after almost one year of preliminary investigations, the most scientifically capable rover in history has its sights set on its primary scientific target, Mount Sharp – a three-mile-high peak at the center of Gale Crater.
Above: Curiosity's very first view of Mount Sharp after landing on Mars last August
Just getting to the base of Mount Sharp, which is currently located about five miles from the rover's current position, could take a year. Five miles may not sound like a lot to you and me, to Curiosity it's quite the schlep. In a dead sprint, the rover can do about 0.09 miles-per-hour, and that's over firm, even ground. On an incline that speed drops. Rutted topography and large obstacles, which can require the rover to adjust its course of travel, also kill Curiosity's commute time. The same goes for sand and soft soils, like the ones that sidelined NASA's Spirit rover for good back in 2010. Imagine Curiosity, a $2.6-billion scientific investment, undone by a damned sandtrap.
Point being: NASA will take its sweet time getting Curiosity to the base of Mount Sharp. When it does, the rover's adventures will be just beginning. The Agency intends to put Curiosity to work reading through layer-upon-layer of sedimentary deposits as it makes its way toward the mountain's summit.
Not unlike the layers of rock and soil visible in the walls of the Grand Canyon (pictured on the far left), the geological strata on Mount Sharp (pictured at center and far right) took eons to form. To Curiosity's onboard equipment, each layer of strata is not unlike a page from a Martian history book that will enable planetary scientists to peer billions of years into the Red Planet's geological past, and, with any luck, add to a growing body of evidence that suggests Mars was once hospitable to life.
In brief: Mount Sharp is it. It's the reason we sent Curiosity hundreds of millions of miles into space and set it on another planet with a skycrane. It's the reason the first color photo Curiosity took after touching down on the surface of Mars was only the second-most exciting photograph it had yet taken – second, that is, to the photo of Mount Sharp featured at the top of this post. As we wrote when it was taken back in August 2012, that photograph was "Curiosity's most thrilling yet because of what it represents: the rover's next conquest. In the distance, Sharp looms like the challenge that it is. It calls on Curiosity to act."