NASA's Mars Rover Curiosity released an amazing photo of herself, and NASA said the climb up and around Mt. Sharp, meant to begin December 31, will begin in February. Then NASA said Curiosity's two-year operating limit had been extended indefinitely.
Curiosity spent several extra days at a couple of earlier points of investigation, making the previously planned start date problematical. As an AP reporter put it, "Since captivating the world with its acrobatic landing, the Mars rover has fallen into a rhythm: Drive, snap pictures, zap at boulders, scoop up dirt. Repeat." Sometimes, that series has been repeated several times more than anticipated, and the business of analysis has taken longer than originally expected. In fact, there remains one additional similar science set to perform, including drilling into (instead of "zapping") a rock with a sort of hammer drill, and analyzing material from deeper in the rock than weathering has affected it. Once that task is complete, Curiosity will begin her trek up three-mile high Mt. Sharp, the central peak of soil and rock created when a meteor created Gale Crater, the crater in which the rover landed. That peak of rock may hold better answers to the questions of what material may be producing the ephemeral traces of methane, whether deeper, unweathered rock contains the "building block material" needed for life to exist.
Gale Crater from Orbit Mount Sharp from below
The initial Rover trek is expected to take at least nine months, and was to be followed by revisiting sites that showed promise. However, things are now in flux. Earlier this month, John Grunsfeld, NASA's associate administrator for science announced that Curiosity's mission would be extended for "...as long as it's scientifically viable." Rover Opportunity, operating on solar power, has been "scientifically viable" for eleven years. Curiosity operates on "...a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG), which should be able to continue converting the heat of plutonium-238's radioactive decay into electricity for a long time to come." That could mean a very long life indeed. "I never get a straight answer on this, but I think it has 55 years of positive power margin," Grunsfeld said. To add to the anticipation, a new Rover, based on Curiosity but carrying many upgrades, will land on the far side of the Red Planet in 2021, carrying the same energy source. And a new orbiter named Maven, as well as a rover called InSight will be there in 2013 and 2016 respectively. In short, going forward, every Mars Orbiter and Lander at the Red Planet or that comes to the Red Planet in future will have time-unlimited missions. So long as they operate and communicate with Earth, they will be allowed to continue.
Along with everything else, Mars Rover Curiosity continues to take and transmit photos. Her most recent self-portrait is actually a mosaic of photos taken October 31 and November 1, and released as a single photo only recently. And there are a myriad of photos from the Mars Orbiters, and Curiosity herself of the Red Planet. Poor old Barsoom has seen better days.
All Photos: NASA JPL