Navcam right image looking south-southeast with light colored mudstone in the foreground. One of the darker colored, loose blocks that sit on top of the light rock in the top right of the image is the robot’s planned end of drive location. Also note the dark, relatively resistant layer of cap rock on the hill behind.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The nominal plan for Curiosity was to do a touch (contact science) and go (drive), as well as science observations with instruments located on the rover’s mast, reports Lucy Thompson, a planetary geologist at University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, Canada.

Curiosity Left B Navigation Camera image acquired on Sol 2617, December 17, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“However, we made a decision early on during planning to forgo the contact science in order to try and optimize the drive, hopefully resulting in some different looking rocks being in the workspace for the following plan,” Thompson adds.

Driving up in elevation

The robot has been driving up in elevation greater than 984 feet (300 meters) through a thick sequence of predominantly lighter colored, fine grained mudstones with minor sandstones, interpreted to have been deposited in a lake environment, Thompson points out.

Curiosity Left B Navigation Camera image acquired on Sol 2618, December 18, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Curiosity Rear Hazard Avoidance Camera Right B photo taken on Sol 2617, December 17, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“We have been observing from a distance a layer of darker colored, resistant rock, capping the top of several hills (or buttes) for some time now,” Thompson reports, “and such a layer occurs at the top of ‘Western Butte,’ the hill we have been climbing for the last week.

Cap rock

Mars researchers have been hoping that the rover’s drive will put a block of this dark rock in front of Curiosity, so that the robot can use both arm- and mast-mounted instruments to investigate the cap rock.

Curiosity Right B Navigation Camera image acquired on Sol 2617, December 16, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“The geologists on the team are excited to investigate this different looking material to see how the composition and texture differs from the dominant, light colored mudstones we have been driving over for the last several years, and what this can tell us about the geological history of this area,” Thompson notes. “We also want to compare it to other resistant, dark colored, coarse grained sandstones overlying the mudstones that we encountered earlier in the mission.”

Curiosity Mast Camera Right photo acquired on Sol 2616, December 16, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Unusual hollowed out area

To make sure that researchers are continuing to document the textures and chemistry of the rocks beneath the rover’s wheels, two rock targets on the typical lighter colored bedrock were chosen for investigation with Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) and Mastcam; “Kelvingrove” and “Keithick.”

Curiosity Left B Navigation Camera image taken on Sol 2616, December 16, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Additionally, the Mastcam is slated to image an unusual hollowed out area in the workspace (“Barra Fan”) and an area with interesting textures, close to the planned end of drive location (“Hells Glen”).

Treasure trove of goodies?

“We will also acquire some longer distance Mastcam mosaics of the ‘Greenheugh Pediment’ (which we hope to start investigating next year) and an area behind the rover to look at the relationships of some of the different units we have previously encountered,” Thompson adds.

Standard Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS), Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN) passive and active and Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) activities were also planned.

“The team is excited to see what the workspace will have to offer after the drive,” Thompson concludes, “a treasure trove of goodies for Curiosity to enjoy over the holiday season?”

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