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Mars Curiosity Rover Nears Rocks at Giant Mountain’s Base

Two years after touching down on Mars, NASA’s Curiosity rover is about to get its first up-close look at the rocks that make up its ultimate destination on the Red Planet.

Curiosity, which landed inside Mars' huge Gale Crater on Aug. 5, 2012, is just 1,650 feet (500 meters) from an outcrop that's part of Mount Sharp, the 3.4-mile-high (5.5-kilometer-high) mountain drawing Curiosity like a big, dusty beacon in the Red Planet sky, NASA officials said.

"We're coming to our first taste of a geological unit that's part of the base of the mountain rather than the floor of the crater," Curiosity project scientist John Grotzinger, of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, said in a NASA statement. "We will cross a major terrain boundary." [Amazing Mars Rover Curiosity's Latest Photos]

The 1-ton Curiosity rover’s main goal is to determine if Mars could ever have supported microbial life. The rover's observations helped mission scientists answer that question in the affirmative last year; they determined that an area near Curiosity’s landing site called Yellowknife Bay was indeed habitable billions of years ago.

Curiosity left Yellowknife Bay in July 2013, heading out on a long trek to the foothills of Mount Sharp. The rover’s handlers want Curiosity to climb up through the mountain’s lower reaches, which preserve a record of the Red Planet’s transition from a relatively warm and wet planet in the ancient past to the cold and dry world we know today.

Curiosity has covered about 5 miles (8 kilometers) during the trek so far and still has 2 to 2.5 miles (3 to 4 kilometers) left to go, mission team members said. They expect the six-wheeled robot to reach its targeted location at Mount Sharp’s base by the end of this year.

— Mike Wall, Space.com

This is a condensed version of a report from Space.com. Read the full report. Follow Mike Wall on Twitter @Twitter and Google+. Follow Space.com on Twitter, Facebook and Google+.