The Mars rover Curiosity arrived at its primary destination on the Red Planet and is set to begin a new phase of its scientific mission as it treks along a mountain the size of Mount Rainier, mission managers at NASA and Jet Propulsion Laboratory said Thursday.

Two years after its arrival on the planet, Curiosity is at the base of Mount Sharp, a mountain at the center of the Gale Crater, officials said. The rover will begin a slow crawl up the mountain, beginning with an examination of its lower slopes. Mission managers said they decided to begin the exploration at an outcropping known as Pahrump Hills instead of the previously planned Murray Buttes.

“It has been a long but historic journey to this Martian mountain,” according to project scientist John Grotzinger of Caltech. “The nature of the terrain at Pahrump Hills and just beyond it is a better place than Murray Buttes to learn about the significance of this contact. The exposures at the contact are better due to greater topographic relief.”

The rover’s route to the mountain had to be adjusted late last year, due to sharp, embedded rocks in the terrain that were poking holes in the rover’s wheels, officials said. Mission managers re-routed the rover to smoother terrain.

“The wheels issue contributed to taking the rover farther south sooner than planned, but it is not a factor in the science-driven decision to start ascending here rather than continuing to Murray Buttes first,” said Jennifer Trosper, Curiosity’s deputy project manager at JPL. “We have been driving hard for many months to reach the entry point to Mount Sharp. Now that we’ve made it, we’ll be adjusting the operations style from a priority on driving to a priority on conducting the investigations needed at each layer of the mountain.”

Launched in 2011, Curiosity landed in a crater in August 2012 and has since found signs of an ancient lake that could have provided the ingredients for life.

City News Service

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