NASA's Mars rover gets Thanksgiving mission

Curiosity set to use camera on its robotic arm to search for next Martian destination

NASA's rover Curiosity is set to spend the next several days using the camera on its mast in a search for the next route to travel on Mars.

Scientists are already on the lookout for a rock on the surface of Mars to try out the rover's hammering drill, which sits at the end of the its robotic arm. The tool will be used to drill into a rock and collect the resulting powder.

The Curiosity rover is three months into what NASA hopes will be a two-year mission to find signs of whether the planet has or has ever had the ability to support life.

The rover has already found signs of life on the planet.

In September, the nuclear-powered, SUV-sized super rover found evidence of a "vigorous" thousand-year water flow on the surface of Mars. It was a key discovery because water is one of the key elements needed to support life.

NASA scientists also may be sitting on what they're calling a potentially important discovery.

John Grotzinger, NASA's principal investigator for the Mars rover Curiosity mission, last week told NPR.org that the agency is getting 'interesting' results from the rover's SAM instrument, an onboard chemistry lab.

Grotzinger told NPR that NASA is holding off on discussing the results until the findings are confirmed.

"We're getting data from SAM as we sit here and speak, and the data looks really interesting," Grotzinger told NPR. "This data is gonna be one for the history books."

On Sunday, the rover completed what scientists are calling a touch-and-go rock inspection before turning and driving toward its next target.

Curiosity reached out and examined a rock with its Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer, taking two 10-minute readings of the chemical elements in the rock. The rover then stowed the arm and traveled 83 feet.

It was the first time the rover did this kind of scientific exam and traveled in the same day.

"We have done touches before, and we've done goes before, but this is our first 'touch-and-go' on the same day," said Curiosity Mission Manager Michael Watkins of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

"It is a good sign that the rover team is getting comfortable with more complex operational planning, which will serve us well in the weeks ahead," Watkins added.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

Read more about emerging technologies in Computerworld's Emerging Technologies Topic Center.

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