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The Mission




Mission: Mars Science Lab
Rocket: Atlas 5 (AV-028)
Launch: Nov. 26, 2011 @ 10:02am EST (1502 GMT)
Landing: Aug. 6, 2012 @ 1:32am EDT (0532 GMT)
Site: Base of Mount Sharp in Gale Crater

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Curiosity's priority switches from driving to science
BY STEPHEN CLARK
SPACEFLIGHT NOW

Posted: April 15, 2014


Beginning its most extensive scientific survey in a year, the Curiosity Mars rover is employing cameras, mineral-sniffing spectrometers, a rock-zapping laser and potentially its impact drill at a study site named "the Kimberley" on the robot's trek toward Mount Sharp.


The Martian terrain at the Kimberley waypoint currently being explored by NASA's Curiosity rover appears like a jackhammered sidewalk in this image taken April 4 by the vehicle's mast-mounted camera. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
 
The rover is taking a break from sustained driving campaign across the floor of Gale Crater, a 96-mile-wide impact basin just south of the Martian equator.

Scientists designated the Kimberley site as one of several waypoints on Curiosity's route from Yellowknife Bay, a shallow depression where the one-ton rover's instruments found an environment that was once habitable to microbial life, toward the mission's ultimate objective at Mount Sharp, a three-mile-high mountain believed to harbor layered clay minerals, an indicator of a wetter time on ancient Mars.

Rover managers have focused on driving Curiosity toward Mount Sharp over the last year, eyeing an arrival in the mountain's foothills by the end of the summer.

But the scene at the Kimberley is, at least temporarily, shifting the rover from its overland drive campaign into science mode.

Four different types of rock intersect at the Kimberley, and scientists hope the region contains more clues about Martian environments that may have once been home to life. The Kimberley is named for a region of western Australia fraught with geological riches.

Since arriving at the Kimberley around April 2, Curiosity has toured the research site, taking pictures, beaming rocks with its laser to measure chemical composition, and collecting data for a probable use of the rover's drill.

The hammer drill hasn't been used for more than a year. It works by boring into a rock and gathering fine-grained samples through an auger into a holding chamber, where it awaits delivery to Curiosity's sample analysis instruments, which can examine the material's chemical and mineral composition, plus look for organic compounds.

The initial survey at the Kimberley location revealed stair-like rocky outcrops, but the mineral analysis will take longer to produce a deeper understanding of the region.

"This is the spot on the map we've been headed for, on a little rise that gives us a great view for context imaging of the outcrops at the Kimberley," said Melissa Rice of the California Institute of Technology, science planning lead for Curiosity's research at the Kimberley.

According to a NASA press release, officials expect Curiosity to remain at the Kimberley for several weeks.


This April 15 image from a rover navigation camera shows Curiosity positioned to obtain "contact science" with instruments and tools on the robot arm. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
 
Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity's deputy project scientist, said the rover's exploration of the Kimberley would be the most thorough at a Martian research site since Curiosity finished up work at Yellowknife Bay in early 2013.

At Yellowknife Bay, a shallow depression to which Curiosity detoured soon after landing, the rover drilled into mudstone and found evidence the site was an ancient lakebed. Furthermore, the results showed the lake's water had a neutral pH and contained the right minerals to support simple microbial organisms.

But Curiosity's drill samples from Yellowknife turned up no signature of organic molecules, the building blocks of life scientists hoped to find. The negative result from Yellowknife Bay has prompted the science team to reconsider their strategy for finding organics.

Radiation measurements on Mars indicate cosmic rays could destroy organic molecules, but the material might be preserved within one meter, or about 3.3 feet, of the surface, where soil and bedrock could shield organics from the constant life-destroying radiation bombardment.

Curiosity does not carry an instrument to penetrate that deep into the Martian subsurface, but geologists are on the lookout for potential drill sites where wind erosion has exposed underground layers in the red planet's relatively recent past.

"If you want to find organics, you need to find places where it hasn't been exposed for such a long time," said Robert Wimmer-Schweingruber, a co-investigator for Curiosity's Radiation Assessment Detector, during a press conference in December.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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VIDEO: THE MARS SCIENCE LAB FULL LAUNCH EXPERIENCE PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: ATLAS 5 ROCKET LAUNCHES MARS SCIENCE LAB PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: ONBOARD CAMERA VIEW OF NOSE CONE JETTISON PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: ONBOARD CAMERA VIEW OF THE STAGING EVENT PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: ONBOARD VIEW OF ROCKET RELEASING MSL PLAY
VIDEO: LAUNCH DECLARED A SUCCESS PLAY

VIDEO: LAUNCH REPLAYS: OUR VIEW OF LIFTOFF PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: LAUNCH REPLAYS: VAB ROOF PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: LAUNCH REPLAYS: PATRICK AFB PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: LAUNCH REPLAYS: SOUTH OF THE PAD PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: LAUNCH REPLAYS: THE BEACH TRACKER PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: LAUNCH REPLAYS: SHUTTLE PAD CAMERA PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: LAUNCH REPLAYS: SHUTTLE WATER TOWER PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: LAUNCH REPLAYS: TRACKER WEST OF THE PAD PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: LAUNCH REPLAYS: CLOSE-UP ON UMBILICALS PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: LAUNCH REPLAYS: COMPLEX 41 VIF PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: LAUNCH REPLAYS: THE PRESS SITE PLAY | HI-DEF

VIDEO: PRE-LAUNCH INTERVIEW WITH PROJECT MANAGER PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: NARRATED PREVIEW OF ATLAS 5 ASCENT PROFILE PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: ROCKET'S LAUNCH CAMPAIGN HIGHLIGHTS PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: MSL'S LAUNCH CAMPAIGN HIGHLIGHTS PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: SPACECRAFT CLEANROOM TOUR PLAY | HI-DEF

VIDEO: ATLAS ROCKET ROLLS OUT TO LAUNCH PAD PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: TIME-LAPSE VIEWS OF ROCKET ROLLOUT PLAY | HI-DEF

VIDEO: THE PRE-LAUNCH NEWS CONFERENCE PLAY
VIDEO: CURIOSITY ROVER SCIENCE BRIEFING PLAY
VIDEO: LOOKING FOR LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE PLAY
VIDEO: WHAT WE KNOW ABOUT THE RED PLANET PLAY
VIDEO: ROBOTICS AND HUMANS TO MARS TOGETHER PLAY

VIDEO: PREVIEW OF ENTRY, DESCENT AND LANDING PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: PREVIEW OF CURIOSITY ROVER EXPLORING MARS PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: A FLYOVER OF THE GALE CRATER LANDING SITE PLAY | HI-DEF

VIDEO: NUCLEAR GENERATOR HOISTED TO ROVER PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: MARS SCIENCE LAB MOUNTED ATOP ATLAS 5 PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: MOVING MSL TO ATLAS ROCKET HANGAR PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: SPACECRAFT PLACED ABOARD TRANSPORTER PLAY | HI-DEF

VIDEO: APPLYING MISSION LOGOS ON THE FAIRING PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: MSL ENCAPSULATED IN ROCKET'S NOSE CONE PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: FINAL LOOK AT SPACECRAFT BEFORE SHROUDING PLAY | HI-DEF

VIDEO: HEAT SHIELD INSTALLED ONTO SPACECRAFT PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: BEAUTY SHOTS OF SPACECRAFT PACKED UP PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: ATTACHING THE RING-LIKE CRUISE STAGE PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: PARACHUTE-EQUIPPED BACKSHELL INSTALLED PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: SKYCRANE AND CURIOSITY MATED TOGETHER PLAY | HI-DEF

VIDEO: TWO-HALVES OF ROCKET NOSE CONE ARRIVES PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: CENTAUR UPPER STAGE HOISTED ATOP ATLAS PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: FINAL SOLID ROCKET BOOSTER ATTACHED PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: FIRST OF FOUR SOLID BOOSTERS MOUNTED PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: FIRST STAGE ERECTED ON MOBILE LAUNCHER PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: STAGES DRIVEN FROM HARBOR TO THE ASOC PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: ROCKET ARRIVES ABOARD SEA-GOING VESSEL PLAY | HI-DEF

VIDEO: STOWING ROVER'S INSTRUMENTED ROBOT ARM PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: DEPLOYING CURIOSITY'S SIX WHEELS ON EARTH PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: MMRTG PUT BACK INTO STORAGE AT SPACEPORT PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: NUCLEAR GENERATOR FIT-CHECK ON THE ROVER PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: ROVER'S NUCLEAR POWER SOURCE ARRIVES PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: SPIN-TESTING THE RING-LIKE CRUISE STAGE PLAY | HI-DEF

VIDEO: UNCOVERING CURIOSITY ROVER IN CLEANROOM PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: UNVEILING THE ROCKET-POWERED SKYCRANE PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: UNBOXING THE ROVER FROM SHIPPING CRATE PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: ROVER HAULED FROM RUNWAY TO PHSF FACILITY PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: MARS ROVER ARRIVES AT KENNEDY SPACE CENTER PLAY | HI-DEF

VIDEO: DESCENT WEIGHTS INSTALLED ON BACKSHELL PLAY | HI-DEF
VIDEO: SOLAR ARRAY PANELS ATTACHED TO CRUISE RING PLAY | HI-DEF
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