Mars rover Curiosity completes longest trek yet

The Curiosity rover, seen in this computer graphic, is designed to operate for at least two years, searching for carbon compounds and signs of past or present habitability NASA

NASA's rover Curiosity completed a record-length mission on Sunday. While the distance wouldn't be all that impressive on Earth -- it was the equivalent of a 100 meter dash -- it's the longest stretch the rover has covered in a single day since starting the Mars surface exploration mission nearly a year ago.

On Sunday -- day 340 of the mission, according to the Martian calendar -- Curiosity traveled 329 feet, more than double the previous one-day record of 161 feet. Visibility of surrounding terrain plays a key role in mission distance, said NASA officials.

"What enabled us to drive so far on Sol 340 was starting at a high point and also having Mastcam images giving us the size of rocks so we could be sure they were not hazards," said Paolo Bellutta, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The Mastcam images are generated by the camera mounted on Curiosity. The visibility was better than expected, but the team did have to maneuver around one low-visibility patch, Bellutta added.

Bellutta and a team of NASA scientists guided this mission, but the rover will soon guide itself through the autonomous navigation system, they said. This could lead to more extensive daily exploration.

Longer daily treks will be key to the success of the current mission: NASA has its sites set on reaching the base of Mount Sharp, some five miles away from the current location. From there, it will explore the foothills of the 3.4-mile-high mountain. It's an ambitious goal, considering the rover has traversed a total of .81 miles over the first 340 days.

The overall rover mission is expected to last two years, and is nearing the midway point.

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    Danielle Elliot is a freelance science editor and reporter for CBS News. She holds an M.A. in science and health journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in broadcast journalism from the University of Maryland. Follow her on Twitter - @daniellelliot.

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