NASA's Mars rover Curiosity is about to head out on a long, arduous trek and scientists expect their best scientific discoveries are to come.
NASA announced earlier this week that Curiosity, its super robotic rover, is just weeks away from starting an approximately six-mile journey to the base of Mount Sharp, the longtime goal of Curiosity's two-year mission.
The trek is one of the longest that a rover has ever made on Mars. (The Mars rover Opportunity once took 1,000 days to make a 13-mile trip.)
Curiosity's journey would take eight to 10 months if it was moving non-stop, but NASA scientists say they plan on stopping and exploring whenever they come across interesting rocks or terrain. And that could greatly extend the length of the trip.
"It really comes down to what we find along the way," said Mars Science Laboratory Project Manager Jim Erickson, in an interview with Computerworld. "There's a lot of desire to get to the base of Mount Sharp, but this is a journey of exploration so we won't pass anything up that deserves to be investigated. This could easily take more than a year.
"I think this will be a very interesting trip," said Erickson. "I think some of our scientists have been sort of itching to get going. A lot of them had planned what they're going to do at Mount Sharp for many, many years now. Even though it's been exciting where we are, they're looking forward to what they're going to do once we get there."
Curiosity has been working in an area its handlers dubbed Glenelg since the rover landed last August. So far, Curiosity has only had to drive about a third of a mile. While its upcoming drive will be much longer than that, Erickson said it's well within Curiosity's design capabilities.
The biggest danger for Curiosity would be running into deep, soft sand where it could get stuck. More than three years ago, NASA was forced to abandon its Mars rover Spirit, Curiosity's predecessor, after it became stuck in soft sand. The sand ended six years of work for Spirit.
However, once Curiosity reaches Mount Sharp, the rover is expected to gather a great deal of information about he feature's formation.
"Like with the Grand Canyon in the U.S., we can see the geology of the time frames by looking at each layer," said Erickson. "It'll tell you what's been happening on Mars in the last few millions of years. I don't know how old the bottom layer is but once you look at the bottom to the top, you're looking at the oldest history first and then going to younger."
And while he doesn't expect Curiosity to reach the top of Mount Sharp, Erickson said the rover will begin to climb the mountain, investigating as many geological layers as possible.
"I hope the most interesting discoveries are ahead of us," he added. "Mount Sharp is in our sites and we're going to be there soon and then we'll see what's really there."