It was a moment that gripped a global audience: Nasa’s dramatic landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars on 6 August 2012 remains one of mankind’s greatest space achievements.
Recently, however, the rover came under criticism for coming last in a review of Nasa’s active planetary missions, owing to the slow progress it has made on the red planet since then.
But now two years after landing the rover has finally reached its goal, a giant mountain named Mount Sharp, and the true science of the mission as had been planned can begin.
The three-mile (5km) high Mount Sharp had been selected as the target for Curiosity’s landing by Nasa owing to its interesting slopes.
These will hopefully provide an insight into the history of Mars, and answer the important question of whether the planet was once habitable.
And after 6.6 miles (9km) of driving, Curiosity is finally ready to start exploring this fascinating region.
‘Curiosity now will begin a new chapter from an already outstanding introduction to the world,’ said Jim Green, director of Nasa’s Planetary Science Division at Nasa Headquarters in Washington.
‘After a historic and innovative landing along with its successful science discoveries, the scientific sequel is upon us.’
Since touching down at a site named Bradbury Landing, Curiosity has spent two years exploring the Gale Crater in which Mount Sharp resides.
However in a recent review of seven active Nasa planetary missions Curiosity came last.
This was because a panel said the rover ‘lacked specific scientific questions and testable hypotheses’ for the next two years of its operations.
Reviewers also said they felt the Curiosity team thought they were ‘too big to fail’, owing to the huge amounts of money – more than £1.5 billion ($2.5 billion) – spent on the rover.
While the review will come as a stark wake-up call, it’s hoped that the rover can now begin to fulfill its potential at Mount Sharp.
The rover is taking a shortcut to get to the mountain, after mission engineers spotted a quicker route.
Curiosity is now at the boundary between the crater and the mountain, where the terrain will become noticeably different.
The rover’s access to the mountain on this quicker route is granted by a region known as Pahrump Hills.
This is considerably earlier than a previously planned entry point named Murray Buttes, providing a shortcut that allows the rover to reach the mountain 1.2 miles (2km) earlier than before.
The entry is at a point where the mountain’s base layer meets the crater floor, terrain that has been previously unexplored by the rover.
The rover will reach Pahrump Hills in two weeks, where drill samples will be taken, before it heads further up the mountain.
Despite criticisms Curiosity’s mission so far has still been successful.
In its first year of operations it fulfilled the major scientific goal of determining if Mars once had favourable conditions for microbial life in its past – namely by spotting evidence of an ancient lake.
The next step will be to ascertain just how habitable Mars really was – and whether it’s present might be a fate that could one day befall Earth.