May 6, 2013 at 5:40 PM ET
NASA's Curiosity rover is back at work in Yellowknife Bay, a rocky area inside Mars' Gale Crater — and if it takes good care of itself, it just might still be at work when humans hit the Red Planet.
At least that's the sentiment voiced by Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program, during this week's Humans to Mars Summit in Washington. "I anticipate the first astronaut we send can go and shake Curiosity's hand," he told Monday's audience at George Washington University. If that astronaut is able to come within hand-shaking distance, the gesture would serve as a thank-you for years of service by the nuclear-powered robot, Meyer said.
Last week, Curiosity resumed contact with controllers back at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory after a weeks-long gap that was scheduled due to solar interference — and JPL has just finished upgrading the rover's software.
Images sent back on May 2 show the rover's robotic arm and its instrument-laden turret poised over Yellowknife Bay's bedrock. Scientist-writer Ken Kremer and his Italian colleague, Marco Di Lorenzo, assembled 13 images ("a Martian baker's dozen") into the sepia-toned panorama you see above.
"She's back and flexing!" Kremer wrote in an email.
Within a week or so, the rover will be drilling into Martian bedrock to flesh out its scientific findings about the habitability of ancient Mars. Then it'll start heading toward Mount Sharp (a.k.a. Aeolis Mons), a 3-mile-high (5-kilometer-high) mountain in Gale Crater. Scientists are hoping that the layers of rock on that mountainside have recorded billions of years' worth of geological changes.
Because Curiosity is powered by a plutonium-fueled radioisotope thermoelectric generator, the rover could keep going for decades — assuming that there aren't any mechanical breakdowns, of course. That's what fuels Meyer's hope that there'll be a human-machine handshake someday.
More than 70 percent of Americans are confident that humans will go to Mars by 2033, according to a survey conducted in February by Phillips & Company for the Boeing Co. and Explore Mars, the nonprofit group sponsoring this week's summit. But one of the summit's headliners, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, said that sending astronauts to Mars can't be done without technological innovation and financial support.
"I don’t know about you, but I’m not ready," The Washington Post quoted Bolden as saying. "I don’t have the capability to do it. NASA doesn’t have the capability to do that right now. But we’re on a path to be able to do it in the 2030s."
Will humans ever shake Curiosity's hand? When? Register your opinion in our unscientific survey above, and voice your views in the comment section below.
More about sending humans to Mars:
You can follow the Humans to Mars Summit via streaming video. Check out Explore Mars' channel on Livestream for on-demand videos from Monday's sessions, plus live coverage of Tuesday's sessions.
Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the NBC News Science Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with NBCNews.com's stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.