Mars rover Curiosity to tackle 3-mile high mountain

Just 10 months into its two-year mission, the Mars rover Curiosity will be headed to a 3-mile-high mountain in the middle of the crater where it landed, NASA officials announced Wednesday.

In doing so, Curiosity will leave behind Glenelg, an area on the Martian surface where the rover has spent the last six months. During that time, the rover has already found evidence in rock and soil samples that conditions on the planet could have at one time supported microbial life.

Now, it’s off to Mount Sharp, the main science target of the mission that scientists from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge are itching to explore.

“We should see a record of a change of environment, based on what we see from orbit,” said Joy Crisp, deputy project scientist on the Mars Science Laboratory mission.

In addition to a new travel itinerary, JPL on Wednesday also announced that the 1-ton rover had just drilled its second Martian rock, named Cumberland, in record time.

The rock was near the site of Curiosity’s first drill target -- named John Klein -- that showed the region may have been favorable to life in the distant past.

While the science team analyzes the second rock sample, Curiosity is making a few last stops in Glenelg, which is 500 meters from its Aug. 5 landing spot.

The rover’s road trip out of Glenelg includes three stops: the rock outcrops known as Shaler and Point Lake and a region sandwiched between mudstone and sandstone. The science team spotted the areas as the rover first drove through the region.

At Point Lake, scientists want to analyze an exposure of rock that is 20 inches tall with a Swiss cheese-like texture.

Shaler boasts a 50-foot-wide exposure of crossbedded rock where scientists believe water once flowed. Crisp said the team wants to figure out the speed and depth of the former stream.

Each stop will take a few days. From there, it will take several months for the rover to reach Mount Sharp, according to NASA.

“There’s nothing that we see from orbit that’s like some super compelling clue to life or something like that,” Crisp said. “What we have is a real desire to get to Mount Sharp.”

But scientists haven’t set a date for when Curiosity will reach the destination, and may even take a detour if they spot something interesting.

“We are on a mission of exploration,” said Jim Erickson, the mission’s project manager. “If we come across scientifically interesting areas, we are going to stop and examine them before continuing the journey."

-- Tiffany Kelly,

Follow on Google+ and on Twitter: @LATiffanyKelly.

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