NASA's Mars Curiosity rover will be the envy of all road trippers. It won't have to hear "Are we there yet?" There won't be any gas station bathroom pit stops. It will just wind its way across the Gale Crater on Mars, heading for new adventures at the much-anticipated "sulfate-bearing unit."
The space agency on Monday announced Curiosity's "summer road trip" at Mount Sharp. "By trip's end, the rover will be able to ascend to the next section of the 3-mile-tall Martian (5-kilometer-tall) mountain it's been exploring since 2014, searching for conditions that may have supported ancient microbial life," NASA said.
The sulfate-bearing unit is the next major area of interest now that Curiosity has finished exploring the clay-bearing unit.
These areas highlight the history of water in Gale Crater. "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," said NASA.
If all goes well, the rover will reach the sulfate region later this year, but only after working its way around a wide sandy patch. NASA is well aware of the dangers of Mars sand after its Spirit rover got stuck in a sand trap in 2009.
Curiosity will have to navigate rough terrain on what will shake out to be about a mile-long road trip. The rover team plans the basic path, but Curiosity's automated systems will look out for and respond to potential terrain obstacles as it travels.
Curiosity is NASA's only working rover on Mars right now, but the agency hopes to land its new Perseverance rover in February, assuming it launches on time in July or August. Then we'll have even more Mars road trips to look forward to.