NASA's Mars rover Curiosity is about to leave the area it has been working in for the last six months and take a five-mile journey to the base of Mount Sharp.
It's the biggest turning point in NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission since landing Curiosity inside the Gale Crater last summer.
"We're hitting full stride," said Mars Science Laboratory Project Manager Jim Erickson, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "We needed a more deliberate pace for all the first-time activities by Curiosity since landing, but we won't have many more of those."
In May, Curiosity drilled a second rock sample and delivered that rock powder into lab instruments in just one week -- about one-fourth the time needed for the first drilled rock.
The mission has already accomplished its main science objective. Rock powder from the first target, "John Klein," provided evidence that ancient conditions in Gale Crater were favorable to microbial life, neither too acidic nor too salty.
Curiosity's second target, "Cumberland" was drilled to confirm those findings. The rover will also be able to carry a sample of the rock powder to the Mount Sharp site to compare with new samples, a new capability according to mission engineers.
At Cumberland, steps that each took a day or more at John Klein could be combined into a single day's sequence of commands. "We used the experience and lessons from our first drilling campaign, as well as new cached sample capabilities, to do the second drill campaign far more efficiently," said sampling activity lead Joe Melko of JPL.
To reach Mount Sharp, where scientists hope to find evidence about how the Martian environment evolved, Curiosity will drive southwest for many months.
"We don't know when we'll get to Mount Sharp," Erickson said. "This truly is a mission of exploration, so just because our end goal is Mount Sharp doesn't mean we're not going to investigate interesting features along the way."