NASA's robotic rover Curiosity is about to take on the mission it was sent to Mars to perform.
After a little more than two years on the Martian surface, Curiosity finished a more than six-mile trip to the base of Mount Sharp and is about to begin its next, and biggest, scientific mission -- ascending the mountain and performing scientific experiments along the way.
"The next phase of research on Mars can begin," said Jim Green, director of NASA's Planetary Science Division. "We have finally arrived at the far frontier that we have sought for so long."
NASA scientists, speaking at a press conference Thursday, were clearly excited that the rover, which landed on Mars in August 2012 and quickly discovered evidence of an ancient water flow, is functioning so well after two years, that it is ready to begin the scientific research that has been the core of its mission.
Curiosity's trek is one of the longest that a rover has ever made on Mars. (Curiosity's predecessor, the Mars rover Opportunity, which is still working on the Red Planet, once took 1,000 days to make a 13-mile trip.)
"You accept the risk of a long drive," said John Grotzinger, Curiosity's project scientist. "Curiosity had to survive a long grueling drive to arrive at the frontier where we could begin the main phase of our mission. We have arrived and have delivered the vehicle to this exciting science place. This is a great moment for us. The science is all in front of us... but we should be celebrating the engineering accomplishments of this mission."
Now that the rover has reached the base of Mount Sharp, its slow trek up the mountain will begin with an examination of its lower slopes.
According to NASA, Curiosity won't take the path that originally had been planned for it. Instead of going through an area called Murray Buttes, it will head for an entry point near an outcrop called Pahrump Hills.
After examining images taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, scientists decided that the topography around Pahrump Hills holds more interesting geology to explore. The rover will travel through an area where crater-floor deposits washed down from the crater's northern rim.
Grotzinger said the rover should arrive at an area where it's expected to make its first drill within two weeks.
Kathryn Stack, Curiosity's mission scientist, said it's hoped the different rocks and geology the rover finds will hold new clues about the potential that Mars once held life forms, even microbial.
"We're going to see exciting things we've never seen before and couldn't have even anticipated," said Stack. "Do the physical and geological change also mean changes in habitability?"
Mount Sharp has been the primary focus of Curiosity's mission because, like the Grand Canyon, scientists can see the geology of different historical time frames by looking at each layer of the mountain. The mountain should give scientists clues to what's been happening on Mars in the last few millions of years.
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