Curiosity plays peekaboo: New self-shot before 9-month mountain climb

NASA's Curiosity rover has set mountain climbing as its New Year's Resolution, with the intrepid space explorer headed up a Martian peak  for its 2013 challenge. The nine-month trek – punctuated with pitstops for drilling and sample analysis - will see Curiosity clamber up the 3 mile high Mount Sharp at the center of the Gale Crater it landed near, further hunting evidence that the red planet might once have supported microbial life. Before that, however, Curiosity couldn't resist snapping another self-portrait – with the mountain clearly visible in the background.

Originally, the Mount Sharp expedition was expected to have begun before 2012 is through; however, mission chief scientist John Grotzinger told the AP, delays were introduced in the latter half of the year. At full speed, the rover is capable of around 90 meters per hour, though a more typical rate is a third of that.

Under automatic navigation, that pace drops again to more like 200m per day, given the challenges of roaming the foreign terrain. However, NASA is likely to manually drive Curiosity to make effective use of time, as well as to help refine the systems. A software update is already planned before the mountain trek starts in mid-February.

Ahead of the climb, Curiosity will spend a month or so hunting the so-called "perfect" rock to take samples from, a lengthy process of selection, core extraction, and testing in its bank of onboard labs. Grotzinger, a geologist, has said the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in charge of the rover project has "promised everybody that we're going to go slowly" despite the eagerness to tackle Mount Sharp.

Curiosity identified water, chlorine, sulfur, and other chemicals in recent tests, as well as other evidence that water had flowed on the Martian surface at one point in time. Next up on the checklist are the sort of chemicals that would be required for microbes to flourish, and which the JPL team believe are likely to be in the multiple strata of the mountain, assuming they're present at all.

As for the self-portrait, the image is in fact made up of more than fifty smaller shots, taken by Curiosity's Mars Hand Lens Imager on the end of the primary robotic arm. By panning the arm around the body of the rover, Curiosity could fire off enough images – over the course of a day – that the JPL team could stitch together into a panoramic shot, a process explained in the video below.

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