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Mars Curiosity rover is embarking on a summer road trip

Trevor Mogg

It’s not just earthlings that embark on exciting summer road trips. Mars rovers do, too. At least, that’s according to NASA, which recently announced that its Curiosity rover has started such a trip across the Martian surface.

The journey will cover a distance of around a mile (1.6 km) and take several months to complete, suggesting that such adventures happen at a more leisurely pace on other planets.

Curiosity is heading to another part of the 3-mile-high (5 km) Mount Sharp, which the rover has been exploring since 2014. But a large area of hazardous sand between its current location and its destination means it’s going to have to drive around it or risk getting stuck, which is precisely what did it for the Mars Spirit rover in 2009. You can see Curiosity’s intended route in this detailed animation released by the space agency last year.

NASA said that some of what it’s calling a “summer road trip” will be completed using the rover’s automated driving abilities that allow Curiosity to deploy its own smarts to find the safest path forward. But the science team, some of whom are currently working from home due to the coronavirus pandemic, may decide to intervene along the way to make stops for drilling samples or to study something that takes their interest.

When it arrives at its destination in early fall, Curiosity will be able to ascend another section of Mount Sharp as it continues its search for conditions that may have supported ancient microbial life.

“Located on the floor of Gale Crater, Mount Sharp is composed of sedimentary layers that built up over time,” NASA explains. “Each layer helps tell the story about how Mars changed from being more Earth-like — with lakes, streams, and a thicker atmosphere — to the nearly airless, freezing desert it is today.”

Curiosity will explore a part of the mountain known as the “sulfate-bearing unit.”

“Sulfates, like gypsum and Epsom salts, usually form around water as it evaporates, and they are yet another clue to how the climate and prospects for life changed nearly 3 billion years ago,” NASA said.

Curiosity’s road trip may be a challenging one, but we wish it well as it makes its way to its next stop. You can keep up to date with developments via Curiosity’s Twitter account.

NASA is also continuing to prep the launch of its Mars 2020 mission, which will put another rover, Perseverance, onto the distant planet. The mission has recently suffered a number of short delays, with the current launch date slated for July 30 at the earliest.