Video: Curiosity produces impressive self-portrait

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updated 12/29/2012 12:51:12 PM ET 2012-12-29T17:51:12

Since captivating the world with its acrobatic landing, the Mars rover Curiosity has fallen into a rhythm: Drive, snap pictures, zap at boulders, scoop up dirt. Repeat.

Topping its to-do list in the new year: Set off toward a Martian mountain — a trek that will take up a good chunk of the year.

The original itinerary called for starting the drive before the Times Square ball drop, but Curiosity lingered longer than planned at a pit stop, delaying the trip.

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Curiosity will now head for Mount Sharp in mid-February after it drills into its first rock.

"We'll probably be ready to hit the pedal to the metal and give the keys back to the rover drivers," mission chief scientist John Grotzinger said in a recent interview at his office on the sprawling NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory campus, 15 miles (24 kilometers) east of downtown Los Angeles.

The road trip comes amid great expectations. After all, it's the reason the $2.5 billion mission targeted Gale Crater near the Martian equator. Soaring from the center of the ancient crater is a 3-mile-high (5-kilometer-high) peak with intriguing layers of rocks.

Curiosity's job is to figure out whether the landing site ever had the right environmental conditions to support microbes. Scientists already know water flowed in the past, thanks to the rover's discovery of an old streambed. Besides water, life as we know it also needs energy, typically provided by the sun.

What's missing are the chemical building blocks of life: complex carbon-based molecules. If they're preserved on Mars, scientists figure the best place to hunt for them is at the base of Mount Sharp, where images from space reveal hints of interesting geology.

It's a six-month journey if Curiosity drives nonstop. But since scientists will want to command the six-wheeled rover to rest and examine rocky outcrops along the way, it'll turn into a nine-month odyssey.

Drill, rover, drill
Before Curiosity can tackle a mountain, there's unfinished business to tend to. After spending the holiday taking measurements of the Martian atmosphere, Curiosity gears up for the first task of the new year: Finding the perfect rock to bore into.

The exercise — from picking a rock to drilling to deciphering its chemical makeup — is expected to last more than a month.

"We have promised everybody that we're going to go slowly," said Grotzinger, a geologist at the California Institute of Technology.

Curiosity's low-key adventures thus far are in contrast to the drama-filled touchdown that entranced the world in August. Since the car-sized rover was too heavy to land using a parachute and airbags, engineers invented a daring new way that involved lowering it to the surface by cables. The risky arrival proved so successful and popular that NASA is planning an encore in 2020.

Curiosity joined another NASA rover, Opportunity, which has been exploring the Martian southern hemisphere since 2004. Opportunity's twin, Spirit, stopped communicating in 2010.

After nailing the landing, Curiosity fell into a routine. The first month was dominated by health checkups — a tedious but essential prerequisite before driving. A chemistry laboratory on wheels, it's the most high-tech spacecraft to land on another planet, so extra care was taken to ensure its tools, including its rock-zapping laser and robotic arm, worked.

Once it got the green light, it trundled to a waypoint that's home to three unique types of terrain to perform science experiments. Every time Curiosity roves, it leaves Morse code tracks in the soil, providing a visual signal between drives. The dots and dashes spell out JPL, short for Jet Propulsion Lab, which built the rover.

Postcards from Mars
So far, its odometer has logged less than a mile. Despite the slow going, scientists have been smitten with the postcards it beamed home, including a stylish self-portrait and tantalizing glimpses of Mount Sharp.

Huge expectations weigh on the mission with NASA balancing the need to feed the public's appetite while pursuing discoveries at its own pace. Last month, the space agency quashed Internet speculation that Curiosity had detected complex carbon compounds in a pinch of Martian soil by issuing a statement ahead of a science meeting where the team was due to present the latest findings.

American University space policy professor Howard McCurdy said Curiosity is currently in a transition, caught between the landing that went viral and the scientific payoff that's expected at Mount Sharp.

"It is interesting, but slow," he said in an email. "I expect public interest will rise as the rover gets closer to its destination."

Curiosity's prime mission lasts two years, but NASA expects the plutonium-powered rover to live far longer. A priority for its human handlers is to learn to operate it more efficiently so that it becomes second nature. Before heading to Mount Sharp, engineers plan a software update to Curiosity's computers to fix remaining bugs.

"We'll need to be pretty careful," project manager Richard Cook said of the upcoming drive. "We may find terrain that we're not comfortable driving in, and we'll have to spend time driving around stuff."

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Photos: Curiosity's space odyssey to Mars

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  1. Caring for Curiosity

    NASA's Curiosity rover is as big as a compact car and weighs a ton ... and it's on Mars. Here's where the journey began. A white-room team works on the six-wheeled spacecraft on Aug. 13, 2011, at the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (NASA via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Liftoff!

    An Atlas 5 rocket rises from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Nov. 26, 2011, with NASA's Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft sealed inside its payload fairing. That spacecraft, in turn, enclosed and protected the Curiosity rover. (NASA via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Mohawk Guy at work

    Activity lead Bobak Ferdowsi works inside the Spaceflight Operations Facility for NASA's Curiosity rover at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., on Aug. 5, 2012 - the rover's landing day. Ferdowsi, who adopts a fresh hairdo for each space mission, became an Internet sensation thanks to his stars-and-stripes Mohawk and his youthful manner. (Brian van der Brug / Pool via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Curious about Curiosity

    Jasper Goldberg and Andreas Bastian, both 22, watch live NASA coverage of Curiosity's descent to Mars on the giant video screen in New York's Times Square. (Andrew Burton / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Watching and waiting

    Steve Collins waits for word at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's mission control room during the "seven minutes of terror" as Curiosity approaches the surface of Mars on Aug. 5. Collins was working at JPL in 1993 when NASA's Mars Observer probe was lost just before its scheduled arrival at the Red Planet. (Fred Prouser / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Touchdown!

    The Mars Science Laboratory team in the Mission Support Area at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory reacts after learning that the Curiosity rover has landed safely on Mars. The happy news came at 10:31 p.m. PT Aug. 5 (1:31 a.m. ET Aug. 6). (Bill Ingalls / NASA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. From Mars to Times Square

    Spectators in New York's Times Square cheer the announcement that NASA's Curiosity rover successfully landed on Mars. (Peter Foley / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Great catch!

    As it flew high above, NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter captured this picture of the Curiosity rover and its parachute descending to the Martian surface on Aug. 5. The inset image has been processed to bring out additional detail in the view of the rover and the chute. (NASA / JPL-Caltech via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Flying saucer

    A color image shows the Mars Science Laboratory's heat shield, as seen by a camera on the Curiosity rover during the spacecraft's descent on Aug. 5. The picture was obtained by the Mars Descent Imager instrument, also known as MARDI, and shows the 15-foot (4.5-meter) diameter heat shield when it was flying away 50 feet (16 meters) below the spacecraft. This image shows the inside surface of the heat shield, with its protective multilayered insulation. (NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. The mountain ahead

    One of the first views from NASA's Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars on Aug. 5, shows the rover's shadow in the foreground and a 3-mile-high mountain known as Aeolis Mons or Mount Sharp in the distance. That mountain is the rover's eventual destination. The picture was taken through a "fisheye" wide-angle lens by one of the rover's hazard avoidance cameras. (NASA / JPL-Caltech via AFP - Getty) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Miles and miles on Mars

    This image, released on Aug. 9, shows part of the deck of NASA's Curiosity rover as seen by one of the rover's navigation cameras. The rover's pointy low-gain antenna and its paddle-shaped high-gain antenna are among the pieces of hardware visible in the foreground. The rim of Gale Crater can be seen at the horizon. (NASA / JPL-Caltech via AFP - Getty) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Curiosity's crime scene

    The four main pieces of hardware that arrived on Mars with NASA's Curiosity rover are pinpointed in this image from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, taken 24 hours after landing. The heat shield was the first piece to hit the ground, followed by the back shell attached to the parachute. The rover itself was lowered to the ground on cables by its rocket-powered sky crane. The cables were cut, and then the sky crane flew away to its own crash landing. (NASA / JPL-Caltech via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. What a blast!

    This is a portion of the first 360-degree black-and-white panoramic view acquired by the navigation cameras aboard NASA's Curiosity rover. Two disturbed areas are visible in the foreground, where the rocket thrusters on Curiosity's sky crane blasted away the surface gravel to reveal bedrock below. The high country of Gale Crater's rim can be seen in the distance. (NASA / JPL-Caltech via AFP - Getty) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. First color picture

    An image from the Curiosity rover's Mars Hand Lens Imager, or MAHLI, provides the first color view of the north wall and rim of Gale Crater. The picture was taken by the MAHLI camera at the end of Curiosity's stowed robotic arm. The view appears fuzzy because of the dust that has settled on the camera's removable cover. (NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Mars in living color

    A color image from NASA's Curiosity Rover shows the pebble-covered surface of Mars. This is a portion of the first color 360-degree panorama from NASA's Curiosity rover, made up of thumbnails, which are small copies of higher-resolution images. The mission's destination, a mountain at the center of Gale Crater called Aeolis Mons or Mount Sharp, can be seen in the distance rising up toward the left. Blast marks from the rover's descent stage are in the foreground. (NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Pew-pew

    This composite image, with magnified insets, shows the results of the first laser test by the ChemCam instrument aboard NASA's Curiosity rover on Mars. The composite incorporates a Navcam image taken prior to the test, with insets taken by the camera in ChemCam. The circular insert highlights the rock before the laser test. The square inset is further magnified and processed to show the effect of the laser blasts on Aug. 19. (LANL / MSSS / JPL-Caltech / NASA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Looking ahead

    The Mars Curiosity rover's robotic arm takes aim at Mount Sharp in a mosaic that combines navigation-camera imagery from Sols 2, 12 and 14 (Aug. 8, 18 and 20). Mount Sharp, also known as Aeolis Mons, is a 3-mile-high mountain within Gale Crater that will be the rover's ultimate destination. (Marco Di Lorenzo / Ken Kremer / JPL-Caltech / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Future mapped out

    NASA's Curiosity rover landed inside Gale Crater at the green dot, within the Yellowknife quadrangle, on Aug. 5. The team has decided to send it first to the region marked by a blue dot, that is nicknamed Glenelg. That area marks the intersection of three kinds of terrain. Then the rover will aim for the blue spot marked "Base of Mt. Sharp," where a natural break in Martian sand dunes will provide an opening for Curiosity to begin scaling the lower reaches of Mount Sharp. (Univ. of Ariz. / JPL-Caltech / NASA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. First steps

    Curiosity's navigation camera system looks back at the wheel tracks from the rover's first test drive on Aug. 22. The $2.5 billion rover made its first moves a little more than two weeks after its arrival on Mars. (JPL-Caltech / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Mount Sharp

    Mount Sharp is seen in the distance in an image taken Aug. 23 by the 34-millimeter Mast Camera on Curiosity. The gravelly area around Curiosity's landing site is visible in the foreground. Farther away, about a third of the way up from the bottom of the image, the terrain falls off into a depression (a swale). Beyond the swale, in the middle of the image, is the boulder-strewn, red-brown rim of a moderately-sized impact crater. Father off in the distance, there are dark dunes and then the layered rock at the base of Mount Sharp. Some haze obscures the view, but the top ridge, depicted in this image, is 10 miles (16.2 kilometers) away. Scientists enhanced the color to show the Martian scene under the lighting conditions we have on Earth. (NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Hip-hop on Mars

    Will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas sings at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory on Aug. 28. Will.i.am's "Reach for the Stars" officially became the first song broadcast from Mars, thanks to a signal beamed from Curiosity. (Nick Ut / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Mmm, Marsberries!

    Small spherical objects fill the field in this Martian mosaic combining four images from the Microscopic Imager on NASA's Opportunity rover. The Sept. 6 view covers an area about 2.4 inches (6 centimeters) across, at an outcrop called Kirkwood in the Cape York segment of the western rim of Mars' Endeavour Crater. Shortly after its landing in 2004, Opportunity spotted similar spherules that were nicknamed "blueberries," but these berries are not as rich in iron, posing a scientific puzzle. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./ USGS/Modesto Junior College via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. 'Do I look fat?' Curiosity checks its belly

    A mosaic of photos taken on Sept. 9 by the Mars Hand Lens Imager on NASA's Curiosity rover shows the underside of the rover and its six wheels, with Martian terrain stretching back to the horizon. The four circular features on the front edge of the rover are the lenses for the left and right sets of Curiosity's hazard avoidance cameras, or Hazcams. Because of the different perspectives used for different images, some of the borders of the photos don't line up precisely. (NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. A Martian rock called Jake

    NASA's Curiosity rover stopped about 8 feet (2.5 meters) in front of this Red Planet rock on Sept. 19, the mission's 43rd Martian day, or sol. The pyramid-shaped chunk was the first rock that the Curiosity rover touched for science's sake. It was named "Jake Matijevic" in honor of a top engineer who worked on every one of NASA's rover missions — but passed away just days after Curiosity's landing. Jake the rock, which measures about 10 inches (25 centimeters) tall, provided a good reference point for the rover's sophisticated instruments. (NASA via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Rover's footprint

    NASA's Curiosity rover cut a wheel scuff mark into a wind-formed ripple at the "Rocknest" site on Mars to give researchers a better opportunity to examine the particle-size distribution of the material forming the ripple. The rover's right navigation camera took this image of the scuff mark on the mission's 57th Martian day, or sol (Oct. 3), the same sol that a wheel created the mark. For scale, the width of the wheel track is about 16 inches (40 centimeters). (Handout / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Rover's self-portrait

    The Curiosity rover used the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) to capture the set of thumbnail images stitched together to create this full-color self-portrait in this Oct. 31, 2012 image from NASA. (NASA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Life on Mars?

    The first sample of powdered rock extracted by the drill of Curiosity is seen on Feb. 20, 2013. Powder drilled out of a rock on Mars contains the best evidence yet that the Red Planet could have supported living microbes billions of years ago, the team behind NASA's Curiosity rover said March 12, 2013.

    Curiosity rover sees life-friendly conditions in ancient Mars rock. (NASA/JPL/Caltech/MSSS via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. The big picture

    This picture isn't from the Curiosity rover - it's a 2003 image from the Hubble Space Telescope, showing the full disk of Mars. The big picture hints at how much we'll be learning about the Red Planet during Curiosity's two-year, $2.5 billion mission. And that's just the beginning: Scientists hope the nuclear-powered rover will last years or even decades longer. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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