It's been just shy of two weeks since Curiosity's wheels touched down on the surface of Mars, and things are looking excellent. Since landing, the rover has been busy stretching out, extending its mast cam to its full height, snapping photos of its surroundings and running its impressive suite of scientific instruments through its paces. But there is something the rover hasn't done yet — it hasn't actually roved anywhere.
Before Curiosity can start exploring, the team at JPL needs to make sure its wheels are fully operational. That should happen at some point in the next few days. Once it does, the rover can be on its merry way. But where to?
Mount Sharp, of course; the rock layers in the mountain's lower elevations are Curiosity's primary scientific target, after all, but the rover still has a fair bit of ground to cover before it reaches the base of Gale Crater's central mound, and there will be plenty of scientific opportunities en route.
A view of the scour marks surrounding Curiosity | Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
First up: Burnside, Hepburn, Goldburn and Sleepy Dragon — four regions of Mars' surface that were scorched during touchdown by the rockets on Curiosity's descent stage. Did you pick up on the theme? The name of each feature was selected from a list of rock formations in northern Canada, but they all have something to do with heat.
After that, it's off to Glenelg, labeled in the image below with a red dot. If you look closely at the terrain surrounding Glenelg, you can probably guess why NASA has selected it as Curiosity's first major destination. Can you spot it?
MSL landing site's position relative to Glenelg | Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/HiRISE
Glenelg is a geological triple point, marking the intersection of three visibly distinguishable types of terrain. According to NASA:
Starting clockwise from the top of this image, scientists are interested in this brighter terrain because it may represent a kind of bedrock suitable for eventual drilling by Curiosity. The next terrain shows the marks of many small craters and intrigues scientists because it might represent an older or harder surface. The third, which is the kind of terrain Curiosity landed in, is interesting because scientists can try to determine if the same kind of rock texture at Goulburn [one of the features we mentioned earlier, where blasts from the descent stage rocket engines scorched the planet's surface], also occurs at Glenelg.
Glenelg, like the scours immediately surrounding Curiosity, is also cleverly named. It's a palindrome, because, says NASA, "if Curiosity traveled there, it would visit the area twice — both coming and going" during its exploration of the planet's surface.
Curiosity's operators estimate it will take the rover three to four weeks to make the trek to Glenelg, where it will spend about two months conducting experiments. After that, it's off to the base of Mt. Sharp. That trip will obviously take some time, and Curiosity is bound to happen upon some interesting scientific targets along the way. We can't wait to see what turns up.