Curiosity is safe on the surface of Mars after a daredevil landing on August 5-6, 2012. On Friday (August 17, 2012), NASA announced the rover’s actual first destination on Mars’ surface. The ultimate destination of Curiosity is Mount Sharp, which forms the central peak within the Gale Crater, rising 5.5 kilometers (18,000 feet) from the crater floor. Curiosity might go as far as halfway up Mount Sharp. But, before it attempts that feat, Curiosity will make a detour. It’ll first travel 400 meters (1,300 ft) east-southeast of its landing site to a place on Mars where three types of terrain intersect. This site is called Glenelg.
One type of terrain at Glenelg is layered bedrock, which is attractive as a first drilling target for Curiosity. Curiosity Principal Investigator John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology said:
With such a great landing spot in Gale Crater, we literally had every degree of the compass to choose from for our first drive. We had a bunch of strong contenders. It is the kind of dilemma planetary scientists dream of, but you can only go one place for the first drilling for a rock sample on Mars. That first drilling will be a huge moment in the history of Mars exploration.
We’re about ready to load our new destination into our GPS and head out onto the open road.
Grotzinger estimated the rover’s journey will take between three weeks and two months to arrive at Glenelg, where it will stay for roughly a month, before heading to the base of Mount Sharp. To perform this drive, the rover will have to move in the opposite direction from Mount Sharp. Then it’ll re-trace its steps to get back on track for its trek up Mount Sharp’s slope later in the mission.
That back-and-forth travel by Curiosity is what prompted space scientists to name Curiosity’s first target Glenelg. That word is a palindrome – a word that’s spelled the same backward and forward – reminiscent of the way the rover will need to retrace its steps to head back toward Mount Sharp, after it finishes exploring Glenelg.
A light-colored patch of terrain in the Glenelg region suggests to scientists a kind of bedrock suitable for Curiosity’s drill.
A cluster of small craters might represent an older or harder surface. Another spot features a patch of land resembling the rover’s landing site, before the nuclear-powered apparatus scoured away some of the surface, according to NASA.
The Glenelg trek will be the rover’s first moderate duration drive target, according to John Grotzinger, who explained to reporters the decision to risk traveling off Curiosity’s originally planned route. He said:
It looks cool.
What better reason? Check out the NASA ScienceCast below to see what factors went into deciding where the one-ton, six-wheeled rover would go first.
Bottom line: NASA announced on August 17, 2012 that the Curiosity rover’s first destination on Mars’ surface will be a place within the Gale Crater where three types of terrain intersect. They’ve called the site Glenelg. The rover will travel 400 meters (1,300 ft) east-southeast of its landing site to Glenelg. Its journey will take between three weeks and two months to arrive at Glenelg, where it will stay for roughly a month. Then the rover will re-trace its steps and head to its ultimate destination on Mars, the central mountain with the Gale Crater, known as Mount Sharp.
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and founded EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.