The Curiosity science team recently released a new Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter image, showing Curiosity’s overall route since its landing on Mars in August 2012. I have posted a reduced version on the right.
Similarly, on the Curiosity website you can view this more detailed map of its traverse route. This map is updated regularly as Curiosity continues its climb up Mount Sharp.
Neither of these maps is to me very satisfying or useful, however. Neither shows the overall location of Curiosity within Gale Crater. Nor do they give one a sense of how far it is has come on its climb up the mountain. In fact, it is very unclear how close the rover actually is to the peak from either image.
Thus, I decided to do a little research to get some better context of Curiosity’s position and its overall journey.
The image below of Gale Crater is a reduced and annotated version of a NASA image available here. The landing ellipse that Curiosity was targeted at is indicated by the red circle. It is north of Mt Sharp inside the rim of Gale Crater. I have added the rover’s approximate route in white since its landing to show its present location relative to the entire crater.
How far however has Curiosity come in its mission to climb Mount Sharp? Well, the mountain itself is quite spread out, and in fact fills much of the crater. For example, this Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter image, reduced and shown on the left, shows the central peak, but that is only a tiny area on the larger image above. To give you an idea how tiny, the yellow box indicates the area of the central peak that is imaged on the left. It is instantly apparent that Curiosity has barely begun its journey up the mountain’s slopes in its four years of roving, and is still a gigantic distance from that central peak.
As for elevation, the central peak is estimated to be about 5,500 meters or 18,000 feet high. The detailed traverse map shows contour lines with the elevation numbers set to show the needed distance to reach the peak. Right now Curiosity is still 4,424 meters or 14,514 feet below the peak. It has gained about 1,100 meters or 3,500 feet, but there is long way to go to get to the top.
Finally, the computer image below, released shortly before the rover landed, gives the best sense of the journey so far, and how much more has to be accomplished. The view of this image is from the north, looking south.
I have indicated in red the approximate path Curiosity has traveled in the four years since landing. From this we can see that Curiosity has barely entered the lower foothills of Mount Sharp, and even when it gets higher it will have to traverse a lot of territory to get to the central peak, the high point farther to the south and to the upper left. I expect that they will switchback to the left, aiming for that relatively smooth slope.
I hope the rover can last for many more years. Based on the time it has taken to get this far, doing magnificent science along the way, it will probably be a decade before it gets reasonably close to the top of the mountain.
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