Curiosity, the aptly-named Mars rover, has been poking around in search of answers on Mars since last August. And while the rover has been digging about, snapping images and generally, well, being curious during that time, it hasn't ventured far from its landing site.
But that's about to change. Curiosity's landing site was chosen in part because of its relative proximity to the base of Mt. Sharp, a point of particular interest to NASA engineers. That's because Mt. Sharp is a sort of enigma. Competing theories exist as to how it was formed — whether by wind or the buildup of silt from a long-since dried up lake.
Mt. Sharp rises approximately three and a half miles into the Martian sky, so any lake that could have created such a peak must have been quite a whopper. To get to the bottom of the mystery, the Curiosity Rover will embark on its sole planned roadtrip.
By terrestrial measurements, Curiosity's journey will be a short one. The distance from the rover's current location to the foot of Mt. Sharp is a mere five miles. But, considering that Curiosity has only gone about 2,400 feet since its landing, five miles is a whole new ballgame. And while we're used to some pretty high rates of travel here on Earth, Curiosity wasn't exactly constructed to be a hot rod. The rover tops out at 0.09 mph, just under a tenth of a mile per hour.
So, even though five miles doesn't sound like an insurmountable distance, the team controlling a rover trekking along the surface of an alien world while facing unknown obstacles might tend to see the equation differently. Curiosity's controllers are gearing up for what looks to be nearly a year's worth of off-roading along the Martian desert. What they find at journey's end, be it evidence of water or just another sand dune, will only be the end of what will have been quite the journey. And sometimes the journey itself is what makes exploration worth while.
Let's just hope Curiosity doesn't get stuck, like Spirit did.