WASHINGTON — The US space agency NASA's Mars rover Curiosity will make a wide detour to explore a geographical hot spot on Mars because "it looks cool," scientists said Friday.
Before driving to its destination at Mount Sharp, which may contain traces of water, Curiosity will head in the opposite direction, to a spot NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory has dubbed Glenelg.
In a statement, the Pasadena lab said Glenelg marks the intersection of three kinds of terrain 1,640 feet (500 meters) from the rover's landing site.
A light-colored patch of terrain in the region indicates to scientists "a kind of bedrock suitable for eventual drilling by Curiosity."
A cluster of small craters may represent "an older or harder surface" and another spot features a patch of land resembling the rover's landing site, before the nuclear-powered apparatus "scoured away some of the surface."
The scientists feel the name Glenelg is "appropriate," because it is a palindrome -- a word read the same way backward and forward -- and the rover will need to travel back in the same direction to head toward Mount Sharp.
The Glenelg trek will be the rover's first long drive, Mars Science Laboratory project scientist John Grotzinger told reporters, explaining the decision to risk travelling off the planned route.
"It looks cool," he said.
Grotzinger estimates it will take three to four weeks for the rover to arrive at Glenelg, where the rover would stay for roughly a month, before heading to the base of Mount Sharp.
Analysts have said it may be a full year before the remote-controlled rover gets to the base of the peak, which is believed to be within a dozen miles (20 kilometers) of the rover's landing site.
A photo of the lower reaches of Mount Sharp, taken from Curiosity's landing site, shows "hills, buttes, mesas and canyons on the scale of one-to-three story buildings."
Scientists hope the hydrated minerals thought to be concentrated in the bottom half of the photographed lower reaches will "reveal the area's geological history."
The Mars Science Laboratory is expected to travel as far as halfway up Mount Sharp, a towering three-mile Martian mountain with sediment layers that may be up to a billion years old.
NASA plans to obtain photos of the summit "in a week or two."
The $2.5 billion craft arrived on Mars at 0531 GMT on August 6.
Photo taken by the Mars rover Curiosity via AFP/NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS