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Curiosity rover to head toward Mars mountain soon

Alicia Chang, AP Science Writer

This image provided by NASA shows a rock outcrop in Gale Crater on Mars. The NASA rover Curiosity plans to study the outcrop before heading off to its ultimate science destination, a mountain rising from the middle of the crater, in the next several weeks.(AP Photo/NASA)

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Ten months after Curiosity's daring Mars landing, the NASA rover is finally about to pack up and head toward the base of a mountain.

Discoveries and longer-than-expected scientific studies delayed the much-hyped drive to Mount Sharp, where scientists are eager to examine the tantalizing rock layers for signs of the chemical building blocks of life.

"Most people are getting a little antsy," deputy project scientist Joy Crisp said Wednesday.

Before Curiosity begins the 5-mile trek, scientists plan to have it linger a few weeks longer to observe some rocks at its current location, where it has worked for the past six months.

Since touching down in Gale Crater near the Martian equator last year, Curiosity set its sights on Mount Sharp, where images from space reveal intriguing geology.

Mission planners decided to make a pit stop so Curiosity could test its kit of high-tech instruments on Martian rocks and dirt.

The detour paid off. While driving from its landing site, the six-wheel, car-size rover discovered an ancient streambed and found evidence from a drilled rock of a habitable environment long ago. It has yet to turn up signs of complex organic molecules that are fundamental to all living things.

So far, Curiosity has logged about half a mile on its odometer, and scientists are anxious to add to that.

"The beacon of Mount Sharp being so enticing is something that's drawing the team to want to start making good progress," Crisp said at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which manages the $2.5 billion mission.

The road trip is expected to take nine months to a year, with stops along the way to fire a laser at boulders, scoop up soil and use the rover's drill.

In the coming days, the team plans to chart a path to Mount Sharp that will include traversing sand dunes.


Follow Alicia Chang at https://twitter.com/SciWriAlicia .