By Jason KUROSU
NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover will be approaching the next phase of its mission, its fourth drilling site, as the rover continues searching for evidence of water and life sustaining conditions on Mars.
Scientists involved with the mission held a teleconference Sept. 11, detailing the latest developments since Curiosity’s arrival on Mars two years ago, which include the rover’s approach towards the Pahrump Hills, from which the rover will enter Mt. Sharp, where scientists believe the rover’s findings could yield interesting evidence.
The conference was attended by Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, John Grotzinger, Curiosity project scientist from the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena and Kathryn Stack, Curiosity mission scientist at Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
According to Grotzinger, the first drilling at the base of Mt. Sharp will occur at a stretch of rock called the Murray Formation.
Grotzinger said the rover has found rocks that have shown evidence that they were “formed in the presence of water.” The high silicon content of some rocks discovered is different from most of the rocks already found and studied on Mars, a development that has the science team optimistic that evidence of water will be revealed soon.
Stack, who represented a team of geologic mappers for the Curiosity team, said that the Murray Formation is 200 meters thick, which when drilled could yield “millions to tens of millions of years of Martian history just waiting for us to explore.”
The rover is taking an alternate, more southern route to reach its destination, one that was chosen in order to avoid further damage to the Curiosity’s wheels. New driving techniques, such as reverse driving, have also added to the life of the rover’s wheels.
Curiosity Project Manager Jim Erickson at JPL said that after much analysis, “We understand now how to drive through the terrain. We understand how to plan routes that will minimize the damage. In general, we’re positive that we’re going to get a lot more mileage out of these wheels.”
Through a combination of the rover’s findings and information obtained from orbital satellites, the team settled upon this new route to Mt. Sharp.
The new route will also take the rover “right across the best exposures of the Murray Formation, around some sand dunes that the team hopes to investigate and into the eastern parts of the Murray Buttes themselves,” said Grotzinger.
From there, the rover will move on to an area called the Hematite Ridge, depending on the findings from drilling in the Murray Formation.
The scientists at the conference also responded to criticism from the NASA Planetary Senior Review Panel, which stated that the Curiosity mission was suffering from problems that “are sufficiently severe that they need addressing at the earliest opportunity.” These include a lack of “scientific focus and detail,” and a suggestion that the mission do more drilling and less driving across the surface of Mars.
Green and Grotzinger said that though the rover has not drilled frequently, each drilling has resulted in a plethora of findings and scientific data.
“I think that the recommendations of the review panel and what we want to do as a science team are going to align because we have now arrived at Mt. Sharp. We are going to do a lot more drilling,” said Grotzinger.
Green described Curiosity’s mission as a success thus far.
“It indeed has made a stirring set of measurements over the last two years,” said Green.
Though the team is hopeful that the Curiosity rover mission will yield extraordinary findings, Grotzinger said that, at the very least, the mission will help establish a baseline for future missions hoping to find evidence of life outside of Earth.
“If we do discover something, that’s wonderful. But if we don’t, we also hope to develop a rubric for future missions to be able to refine their search,” he said. “This is a major goal for NASA. To search for life in the universe, you have to know how to do this deliberately and that requires testing hypotheses.”