The directors of the Curiosity mission on Mars are planning a road trip for the rover. Just like so many of us do in late August, NASA will pack the family in the car and go sightseeing. Even though we just got done spending what felt like YEARS in space, we have to look at something new? Can’t we just stay in one place?
Apparently not. In this case the new attraction is named Glenelg, which has some interest for the scientists because three different kinds of terrain intersect there. I don’t know the textbook terminology for it, but basically there’s some stuff that looks like it could be bedrock, some other crater marked stuff that might be quite old, and lots more of the stuff that Curiosity landed on.
Glenelg is a palindrome, and the planners named it thus because Curiosity will visit the spot twice. Once on the way to the base of Mt. Sharp, and once on the way back.
This is how engineers amuse themselves.
Following the travels of Curiosity will be fun if you are the sort of person who happens to find driving very slowly and looking at rocks delightful. Teenage joyriders may lack the patience for this particular trip, but we have the mission planners to thank for giving us a nice variety of rocks to enjoy. Rocks, boulders, outcroppings, chunks, lumps. Mars Rover watchers will see plenty of terrain and will learn many new words to describe dusty red nuggets over the next weeks, months and years.
Here’s what I’m waiting to find out – when Curiosity starts claw at the ground with its shovel, will we say it is digging holes in the Mars?
If a similar rover from another civilization was sent to Earth on a quest to explore some scenic spot where multiple kinds of terrain intersect, I’m certain its mission planners would land it at the Lengby Rest Area in Polk County, Minnesota.
There are lots of good reasons for curious aliens to do this. For one, there’s a flat parking area, so their rover can be lowered onto an even surface. It would be a particular challenge for the engineers to pick a location that’s empty – my recommendation is to go for one of the first spots you come to – far away from the trash cans, the commode, and vending. But those exciting features could be part of a future road trip for the Earth Rover, once it has found its bearings and established a link with the home planet.
And there’s summer tourism, of course. People up from the Cities would take pictures of the extraterrestrial machine as it takes pictures of them. Actual aliens would be off-putting and we’d ignore them as long as they ignored us, though we’d talk behind their backs and make all sorts of unflattering assumptions about them. But if they sent their machines, well, that kind of space traveler is a little more approachable. I’ve been to the Minneapolis Auto Show. If it has four wheels, it will draw a crowd.
But the best reason is that Minnesota is home to four different biomes and all four of them come together within a few miles of that potty break paradise between Erskine and McIntosh. There’s Coniferous Forest to the Northeast, Tall Grass Aspen Parkland to the Northwest, Prairie Grassland to the West and South, and Deciduous Forest to the South and East. What a treat for an automated rover sent from a place like Tatooine, which we all know is a desert planet in a binary star system. Those parched taxpayers would want to get their money’s worth, and the Lengby Rest Area would deliver. All this different terrain to look at!
The only problem – the Lengby Rest Area is situated in the median, so the machine will have to cross Highway 2 to get to the good stuff. But that’s just another kind of scientific discovery – do Minnesota drivers brake for exploratory robots? Sometimes you have to go there to find out.
Where’s your favorite road trip rest stop?