NASA's Mars rover takes long trek, stops for study

After two months of slow but steady trekking across the Martian landscape, Curiosity is getting ready to rest its wheels and get back to some good old-fashioned science.

This week, Curiosity's handlers announced that the Mars rover is less than 250 feet from the first of five waypoints that will break up its 5.3-mile journey to its next major destination - the base of Mt. Sharp, the Los Angeles Times reported

To help scientists determine exactly where the rover should plan to stop, Curiosity climbed to the top of a rise known as Panorama Point and snapped the image above. The points of interest for scientists are the pale horizontal streaks in the image, which represent Martian bedrock.

Photos: Curiosity's first year on Mars

The rover will do a detailed study at each waypoint, using instruments on its robot arm. The Mars Hand Lens Imager, or MAHLI, will collect detailed images of rocks, for instance, and the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer, or APXS, will measure chemical elements in rocks and soil.

Those instruments, and others, have been on a two-month hiatus since the rover left the shallow depression known as Yellowknife Bay, where it found evidence that the Martian environment was once hospitable to microbial life.

At its next destination, Mt. Sharp, the rover will look at multiple rock layers to learn more about Mars' ancient environment, and how environmental conditions changed.

In the meantime, scientists say the waystation stops will provide context for the rover's past and future discoveries.

"We want to know how the rocks at Yellowknife Bay are related to what we'll see at Mt. Sharp," project scientist John Grotzinger of Caltech said in a statement. "That's what we intend to get from the waypoints between them. We'll stitch together a timeline - which layers are older, which are younger."

It will also break up the slow-going trek of the rover, which moves at a pace of just 1.5 inches per second. 



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