Mars rover Curiosity's first trip still weeks away

This self-portrait shows the deck of NASA's Curiosity rover from the rover's Navigation camera. The back of the rover can be seen at the top left of the image, and two of the rover's right side wheels can be seen on the left. The undulating rim of Gale Crater forms the lighter color strip in the background.
NASA/JPL-Caltech

(CBS News) Mars rover Curiosity is still undergoing extensive equipment tests to make sure the 1-ton science lab is ready to begin exploring the Red Planet. In a press call with reporters, members of the Curiosity mission team discussed what comes next for the Mars rover. Long story short: don't expect the Mars rover to start roving until next month.

Speaking with reporters, project scientist John Grotzinger said that things are going so well for the Curiosity team that "folks are beginning to take some time off." The Mars rover continues to run through equipment tests, and new pieces of the hi-tech rover are coming online every day. Most recently, Curiosity activated its weather monitoring station, giving scientists their first access to long-term climate conditions on Mars since the Viking 1 Lander shut down in 1982. (For the record, the maximum temperature Curiosity has recorded so far is one degree above freezing.)

Grotzinger explained that testing - including a rotation test on the rover's wheels - will continue until "sometime next week" after which the mission team will enter what he calls "intermission." Once all equipment has been determined to be operational, Curiosity and the team will transition to exploration.

Glenelg

This image shows a closer view of the landing site of NASA's Curiosity rover and a destination nearby known as Glenelg. Curiosity landed inside Gale Crater on Mars on Aug. 5 PDT (Aug. 6 EDT) at the blue dot. It is planning on driving to an area marked with a red dot that is nicknamed Glenelg. That area marks the intersection of three kinds of terrain. Starting clockwise from the top of this image, scientists are interested in this brighter terrain because it may represent a kind of bedrock suitable for eventual drilling by Curiosity. The next terrain shows the marks of many small craters and intrigues scientists because it might represent an older or harder surface. The third, which is the kind of terrain Curiosity landed in, is interesting because scientists can try to determine if the same kind of rock texture at Goulburn, an area where blasts from the descent stage rocket engines scoured away some of the surface, also occurs at Glenelg.  The science team thought the name Glenelg was appropriate because, if Curiosity traveled there, it would visit the area twice -- both coming and going -- and the word Glenelg is a palindrome. After Glenelg, the rover will aim to drive to the base of Mount Sharp.  These annotations have been made on top of an image acquired by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.  Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona
This image shows a closer view of the landing site of NASA's Curiosity rover and a destination nearby known as Glenelg. That area marks the intersection of three kinds of terrain. Scientists are interested in this brighter terrain because it may represent a kind of bedrock suitable for eventual drilling by Curiosity.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

The first mid-term target for Curiosity is an intriguing piece of Martian real estate the mission team has dubbed "Glenelg." The location was chosen because it is an area where three different kinds of Martian terrain meet. Glenelg will be the first test of Curiosity's drilling instruments. Grotzinger estimates the trip from the landing zone to Glenelg will take "three to four weeks" but emphasized that the team may make several stops along the way if Curiosity spots anything interesting in the Martian soil.

"I'm sort of guessing a timescale of a month, a month and a half, we make it to Glenelg." Grotzinger said. He also mentioned that the unusual name - also the name of an ancient rock formation in Canada - came from a list of over 100 names contributed by the science team.


Long term: Mount Sharp

This image (cut out from a mosaic) shows the view from the landing site of NASA's Curiosity rover toward the lower reaches of Mount Sharp, where Curiosity is likely to begin its ascent through hundreds of feet (meters) of layered deposits. The lower several hundred feet (meters) show evidence of bearing hydrated minerals, based on orbiter observations. The terrain Curiosity will explore is marked by hills, buttes, mesas and canyons on the scale of one-to-three story buildings, very much like the Four Corners region of the western United States.  A scale bar indicates a distance of 1.2 miles (2 kilometers).  Curiosity's 34-millimeter Mast Camera acquired this high-resolution image on Aug. 8, 2012 PDT (Aug. 9 EDT).  This image shows the colors modified as if the scene were transported to Earth and illuminated by terrestrial sunlight. This processing, called "white balancing," is useful to scientists for recognizing and distinguishing rocks by color in more familiar lighting.  Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
This image shows the view from the landing site of NASA's Curiosity rover toward the lower reaches of Mount Sharp, where Curiosity is likely to begin its ascent through hundreds of feet of layered deposits. The lower several hundred feet show evidence of bearing hydrated minerals, based on orbiter observations. The terrain Curiosity will explore is marked by hills, buttes, mesas and canyons on the scale of one-to-three story buildings, very much like the Four Corners region of the western United States.
NASA/JPL-Caltech

The big long-term target for Curiosity is the mammoth Mount Sharp. At the base of the mountain are several hills which orbital cameras have identified as having once had water.

"There should be hydrated minerals in all those layers," Grotzinger said when describing the varied terrain at the base of Mount Sharp. "There's a rich diversity there."

But Mount Sharp will have to wait for now. With all the tests Curiosity has on its to-do list, it is unlikely the rover even begins the trip to the mountain before the end of the year.