Earlier this month NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter passed over the area where Mt. Sharp is located. The satellite used its HiRISE camera system to image the region. Amid the slope and jumble and dunes of Mars it photographed something with a symmetric shape and unusual color. That something was another robot of exploration called the Curiosity Mars Rover. This robot has been operating on the planet since August, 2012.
In the last 4 years and many months Curiosity has ambled across nearly 16 kilometers of the Martian surface. An able geologist, the golf cart sized mobile science lab has sampled a multitude of sites and made a number of important discoveries, including the past presence of water in the region where it operates. Its many images have included cracked layers of rock, dune filled depressions, and no few martian dust devils.
Curiosity is now in the process of climbing Mt. Sharp. In the cold, thin atmosphere of Mars its six wheels turn and propel it steadily forward and upward. When we say climb it is scaling features and following a path watched very closely by its controllers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It has gained an elevation of 165 meters. The peak it is assaulting is 5.5 kilometers in height…that’s taller than Mt. Rainier in the Pacific Northwest. So it has a ways to go!
This is certainly not meant to diminish the feat of having a semi-autonomous mobile lab at work day-to-day on a world tens of millions of kilometers away from Earth. The slopes it climbs are challenging for a robot and every centimeter is truly new territory. Yet the inclines are kept within its carefully designed operating parameters, so it tackles fairly low angles of gravel and sand. Still, those angles offer a hazard, particularly for its well worn wheels, communications systems, and the delicate instruments on board.
Will it climb up the shoulders of the mountain and reach the top of Mt. Sharp? As its objective is to follow the science and seek traces of water the summit is probably not the mission’s key goal. Yet even if Curiosity were to stop transmitting tomorrow (it shows no indication of wanting to do so) its mission to date would be an overwhelming success.
The crisp image from HiRISE shows an unforgiving terrain. It looks forbidding and may be full of surprises. There was something about the rugged nature of the mountain, its ocher coloration, and the sense of loneliness I felt when I first saw the picture that made me think of the prophet Moses and that long-ago first climb of Mt. Sinai. I’m not sure why that Biblical event sprang to mind except that it offers a unique symbolism of humanity facing an unknown. Moses was a lonesome outcast, far from home in a bitter wilderness seeking truth and meaning to his life. He found an answer on the mountain, and was a different person when he returned from the summit.
It would be remarkable if Curiosity reached the summit of Mt. Sharp and surveyed the land all around it. What would its camera eyes see? And would its controllers have it come back down? If so, what discoveries would it bring back? Certainly not a burning bush or a robotic version of the Ten Commandments in hexadecimal format! But the journey upward will not be without reward, even if we just learn something about ourselves and our very human capabilities in the face of wonder.
(Note on image at top: mosaic “self-portrait” of the Mars Curiosity Rover composited and post-processed by NASA JPL. Mt. Sharp is to the left in the background.)